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BAGHDAD — For the soldiers of the 1st Armored Division, home has been a long time coming.

“It’s Fourth of July — Independence Day,” said Staff Sgt. Renaldo Valentin-Rivera of San Sebastian, Puerto Rico. “They chose a nice day for us to close out this deployment.”

The division, based in Wiesbaden, Germany, was sent to Iraq in April 2003. After one year, the troops were about to go home but were told they would be staying for another three to four months. Some who had already returned to Germany were sent back to Iraq.

Sunday’s casing of colors, a ceremony in which the division’s flags are put away to signal its departure from the battlefield, was another step in the trip home. The colors will be uncased when the troops are back in Germany.

“You want the ceremony to have the pomp and circumstance of a military ceremony, something to be proud of, and you want it to be colorful,” said Maj. Brian Williams of Sanford, N.C., and Headquarters Company, who helped organize the event.

“It’s got to be respectful for the soldiers we lost. We’re leaving the field of battle, and we’re leaving with 137 soldiers who didn’t go home alive.

“So everything we put into the ceremony has to honor them, has to honor all the work we’ve done, and has to honor the Iraqi people because we put so much effort into the work.”

Only a few hundred of the division’s 20,000 soldiers were able to attend the ceremony, held outside a hangar at 1st AD’s headquarters at Baghdad International Airport.

It included soldiers holding the unit flags of the brigades, battalions and companies within the 1st AD. Williams said the soldiers carrying their unit’s colors have through the years been chosen because they were outstanding.

“The color-bearer has always been a very special honor because they protect the colors with their lives,” he said.

For Valentin-Rivera and other members of the 1st AD band, it was a day to start getting ready to go back to Germany.

“It feels great,” said Spc. Daniel Lopez of Brownsville, Texas. “It was our last gig and we knew that once it was over, we can start packing up to go home.”

Lopez, who plays the euphonium, said his wife, Vanessa, was waiting for him and that he couldn’t wait to see his three children, ages 3, 2 and 1.

Sgt. Stanmore Hinds, who plays trumpet, estimated that the band and its various incarnations — marching, quartet, rock and Dixieland — had performed 600 times in Iraq, including at special events and memorial services.

“This made it feel extra special because was it was finally our color casing,” said Hinds, of Montgomery, Ala. “We’ve played for everybody else’s.”

The band members were among the 1st AD soldiers who already had returned to Germany in late March and were sent back to Iraq because of the extended deployment. They hoped this time their return would be final.

“Who knows, we might be back [in Iraq] in a week,” Hinds said. “To tell the truth, that’s how I really feel. I’m not going to believe it until a couple years have passed.”


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