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JBLM soldiers return home, adjust to life away from war

Spending the better part of a year under the Afghanistan sun has a way of making gray skies look lovely.

“It’s nice to see clouds and rain,” said Army Capt. Benjamin Meier, just back last week from a mission leading a Stryker company in a tough part of Kandahar province. “For the past nine months, we saw rain once and it was for about 10 minutes.”

Meier, 31, said he’s enjoying the little things about being home, like wrestling with his son. Soldiers in his battalion were among the first at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to go on a nine-month deployment without a midtour leave instead of the yearlong assignments broken up with a two-week break, which the Army had used for most of the past decade.

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Meier’s 2-year-old son “developed a lot since I left,” the officer said. “He’s talking more, just being able to ride a bike and walk.”

Sgt. Michael Beecher, 26, is getting reacquainted with his children, too.

“The kids really missed me, especially my boy,” Beecher said. “He pretty much clung to me. He’s my shadow.”

Both soldiers are veterans of the Iraq War who just returned from their first tours of Afghanistan. They served with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Beecher found this tour more challenging than his Iraq deployments. The battalion fought in Kandahar’s Panjwai district, a region that the Taliban considers its homeland. Beecher and his fellow soldiers relentlessly searched a mostly rural countryside for hidden mines, aiming to thwart insurgents seeking to destablize the city of Kandahar.

From Beecher’s perspective, he had fewer opportunities to contact his family than he enjoyed in Iraq. Afghanistan also posed a more difficult climate and terrain for soldiers carrying heavy gear.

“Iraq was a walk in the park,” he joked.

Five of the battalion’s roughly 700 soldiers died in Afghanistan. No soldiers in the battalion’s 2009-10 deployment to Iraq died in that country.

“There were a lot of people who got hurt and a couple people who were killed,” Meier said. “It’s going to be hard for the guys who knew (the soldiers who were killed).”

“It was so fast-paced that a lot of guys did not get an opportunity to process what they saw,” he said.

Meier said he’s responsible for helping his soldiers make the transition back to stateside living. First, he’s telling them he’s proud of what they accomplished.

“They did an amazing job,” he said. “They were able to take the fight to the Taliban.”

Lt. Eric Holly, a graduate from last year’s class at the U.S. Military Academy, returned on the flight home with Meier and Beecher. He said he deployed almost as soon as he arrived at Lewis-McChord last year and is just now looking for a place of his own to rent.

He said West Point prepared him for the combat zone, but he’s glad to be out.

“The conditions there were at times pretty harsh,” said Holly, 23. “It’s nice just being back, just seeing friends and family. It’s nice just to be safe.”

Coming and going

Here’s a look at when Joint Base Lewis-McChord units are due home from Afghanistan.

Stryker brigades

3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division: Most of the 3,500 soldiers who left for Afghanistan last year have recently returned home. Most of the brigade spent a year overseas, but several subordinate units had nine-month missions.

2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division: Most of the nearly 4,000 soldiers should be coming home in January and February. These soldiers had nine-month assignments in Kandahar province.

4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division: About 3,000 soldiers deployed to southern Afghanistan last month and are due home by August.

Smaller units

Military police, artillery batteries, Special Forces detachments, explosive ordnance technicians and Air Force cargo jet crews could continue to deploy up to and beyond the president’s 2014 deadline to withdraw combat troops.

 

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