TACOMA, Wash. — Staff Sgt. Christopher Byers marched on prosthetic lower legs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Thursday, rejoining a group of soldiers he left in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province seven months ago.
His limbs chafed at their heavy use, but Byers didn’t complain. He said he was motivated by the chance to march at a ceremony marking the homecoming of his Stryker brigade.
“It’s good to have them home. It really is,” he said. “I was so worried about them while they were gone.”
Byers, 30, served with the 4,000 soldiers in Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which recently completed a nine-month assignment partnering with Afghan forces and managing the drawdown of NATO troops in one of the war’s main battlegrounds.
The brigade on Thursday uncased its flags at the base, signifying the end of its combat tour and the beginning of a reset period at home. It is the only local Stryker brigade to have served two deployments in Afghanistan, though under different flags and different conditions.
The ceremony took place on the heels of President Barrack Obama’s State of the Union announcement that he would speed the withdrawal of American troops, bringing home more than half of the 66,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan by next year.
The pace of that drawdown has some security experts questioning whether Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban once U.S. forces leave. Soldiers in the 2nd Brigade seemed to think their Afghan partners could hold their own.
Col. Barry Huggins, the 2nd Brigade’s commander, said the Afghan security forces and civilian leaders he encountered over the past year appeared well on their way to creating a stable country.
The Afghans planned their own missions and fought well as U.S. troops left Kandahar province and handed more territory to the local army and police, Huggins said.
“There are institutions there that are stronger than I gave them credit for,” he said.
Huggins’ brigade is composed of Lewis-McChord units with deep experience in Afghanistan. Its subordinate battalions were the first Stryker troops to fight in Afghanistan when they deployed there in 2009-10 under the flag of Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Before that, the South Sound base’s marquee infantry vehicle was known only for its service in Iraq.
The 5th Brigade fought on the same ground that Huggins’ soldiers covered last year, but had a dramatically different deployment.
The 5th Brigade lost 37 soldiers during a year of fighting in parts of Kandahar province that NATO had largely ignored.
On its second deployment and fighting under a new flag, Huggins’ brigade lost eight soldiers during a deployment that ran three months shorter.
Huggins cultivated an image of his brigade over the past three years as “lancers” – knights who would protect civilians from those who would do them harm.
Huggins and others stuck to that theme at Thursday’s flag ceremony.
“Welcome home; you have indeed returned with honor,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza of Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division.
Hundreds of Army families watched from bleachers along Lewis-McChord’s main parade ground. They corralled toddlers and tried to hush babies.
The families were all smiles with their soldiers newly home. They’re looking forward to spending time together even if they’re not sure the quicker Afghanistan drawdown will keep them out of harm’s way for long.
“They’re going to be home at least a year,” said Stacy Herion, 25. “Anything over that is amazing.”
Her husband, Sgt. Christopher Herion, is spending lots of time playing with his young sons these days. They cry when he goes to work, Stacy Herion said, because they don’t want him to leave for such a long time again.
Byers received a Bronze Star at the end of the ceremony. He lost both feet after a mine detonated under him during a patrol last July.
He has served at Lewis-McChord for most of the past decade with the 2nd Brigade and with its sister unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which also recently returned from Afghanistan.
He’s taking time to reconnect with friends from both units before going back for treatment at San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas.
“I’m feeling rejuvenated walking among them,” he said.