Army Staff Sgt. Ben Johnson was granted two weeks’ leave from Iraq last September to be in Hawaii for the birth of his son, Hunter.
Thursday, on a Schofield Barracks parade ground, Johnson took Hunter from his wife, Cheri, and put his Army camouflage cap on the 10-month-old’s blond head.
“We stayed in touch through Skype, so when my husband came home, Hunter recognized him,” Cheri Johnson said.
Johnson and 3,700 other soldiers of Schofield’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team are back from Iraq for good after completing their 12-month deployment in June. The U.S. is proceeding with plans to withdraw virtually all military forces from Iraq by the end of the year.
The 2nd Brigade marked the conclusion of its Iraq mission Thursday with a ceremony at Weyand Field. A traditional element is the “uncasing of the colors,” unfurling the brigade’s flags for retirement after they were shipped home from deployment.
“The uncasing represents the end of the deployment and welcomes the soldiers home,” Army spokesman Maj. Gabriel Zinni said.
The 2nd Brigade deployed in July 2010 and relieved two brigades in northern Iraq, operating across Diyala, Salah ad Din and Kirkuk provinces. Their primary mission was to advise, train and assist Iraqi army units to be self-reliant after U.S. forces depart.
“You assisted the Iraqis in putting themselves on an irreversible path that will result in a secure, stable, self-reliant and sovereign nation that is an oasis of hope for the Middle East,” 2nd Brigade commander Col. Malcolm Frost said during the ceremony.
Five of the unit’s soldiers were killed and 58 were wounded on the deployment.
The soldiers now get 30 days’ leave. About 1,000 of the unit’s soldiers will be reassigned to other units throughout the Army. Johnson has been assigned to Fort Benning, Ga., and he and his family will make the move in September.
Many took the time to reflect on their service and to savor being reunited with their families.
“The best part about being back is seeing my family and loved ones,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Preston. “The hardest part was the separation from my family. I love the soldiers, we had a great mission and I’m very proud of them. My heart is always with the families.”
Preston has two daughters — Jessica, 18, and Ashley, 13 — who said they are very proud of their father and relieved that he returned home safely.
Mindy Morris, whose husband is Staff Sgt. Roger Morris, said, “It means everything that he made it home safe.”