In the largest re-enlistment ceremony ever held in Iraq, 177 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division's Aviation Brigade at Camp Taji pledged a fresh commitment to the Army.

In the largest re-enlistment ceremony ever held in Iraq, 177 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division's Aviation Brigade at Camp Taji pledged a fresh commitment to the Army. (Vince Little / S&S)

CAMP TAJI, Iraq — With Black Hawk, Chinook and Apache helicopters as a backdrop, 177 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division’s Aviation Brigade pledged a fresh commitment to the Army earlier this month.

The soldiers assembled on the Camp Taji flight line signed up for an additional 990 years of combined service. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who heads the Forces Command, comprised of all tactical Army units in the continental United States, conducted the proceedings. He was accompanied by Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, the 3rd ID commander.

“Just under 1,000 years of service stands before you here today,” Webster told the audience. “That’s a tremendous sacrifice and contribution to the security of our nation and families back home.”

The 101st Airborne Division had established a previous record of 158 re-enlistees at once in Iraq two years ago, Army officials said. This month’s event represents the largest mass re-enlistment in the 3rd ID’s history.

“Collectively, it’s a great day for the command, Army and division,” said Sgt. Maj. Craig T. Lott of Thomson, Ga., the division’s retention sergeant major. “Being in a war, a lot of them are here for the second time. It shows that many still have a desire to stay with the team and stick with the Army, in spite of all the circumstances. We still have soldiers who want to stay.”

Aviation Brigade soldiers all appeared unfazed by the prospect of an extended U.S. military presence in Iraq. And while the Army as a whole is struggling to meet its recruiting and retention goals, the soldiers who re-enlisted in Iraq had their reasons.

“You lead from the front and not from the rear, right?” asked Spc. Gilman Bieto of Norman, Okla., a transportation specialist with the 603rd Aviation Support Battalion. “I’ve only been in two units, so I want to find out what the rest of the Army is all about. I’d like to grow more into a leadership role.”

Staff Sgt. Ramon Puchales of Vineland, N.J., the noncommissioned officer in charge of retention for the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, said he didn’t have to think twice about turning out Sunday.

“I have the support of my family in 100 percent of everything I do. It’s an honor to be out here in Iraq,” he said.

Spc. Christopher Martin of Baltimore, also a transportation specialist for the 603rd Aviation Support Battalion, has applied for warrant officer status. He’s interested in becoming an Apache pilot.

“I’m trying to make a career out of it,” Martin said. “I’m not too worried about [Iraq]. This is my second time over here. I just do my job and serve my country."

The significance of Sunday’s ceremony wasn’t lost on Sgt. Annie Rivera of Mounds, Okla., who works in human resources. She said she felt a sense of unit pride.

“I’d like to be a part of brigade and division history,” she added. “I love my job, I love the Army and I want to support my family.”

During Sunday’s ceremony, the brigade — currently commanded by Col. Ronald D. Tuggle — also received the Presidential Unit Citation for its performance in Operation Iraqi Freedom I.

Since arriving at Taji on Feb. 18, the Aviation Brigade has logged about 20,000 hours in Apaches, Black Hawks and Chinooks, said Maj. David Weis, a unit spokesman.

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