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Despite the mass of forces that assemble for deployment to a combat zone, war often is described as a very personal experience. No two soldiers take in the brutal and often chaotic surroundings in the same way.

But in Iraq, similarities inevitably arise: a local population that doesn’t always seem trustworthy. Local authorities who can seem even less so. Frustrating missions where a soldier’s head is on a constant swivel.

The 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team saw a bit of all aspects of the Iraqi experience during its recently completed deployment.

Through a deployment that saw heavy action for many soldiers in Anbar province, “Ready First” soldiers also worked to win the peace in places such as Sinjar and Tal Afar, while overtly taking it to the enemy in hellish locales such as Ramadi.

Over the course of about 14 months on the ground, 31 of the brigade’s soldiers were killed.

Back from war, many 1st BCT soldiers at Ray Barracks in Friedberg, Germany, last week seemed reluctant to talk about their experiences, individually or collectively.

“What else is there to say?” Sgt. Thomas Fleming, of the 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, said. “I wouldn’t recommend that experience on anybody, or as a vacation spot.”

While there’s not enough space to tell the story of every brigade unit and soldier, it started for many on Jan. 5, 2006, when they officially said goodbye, 18 months after the brigade’s first Iraq deployment.

The enemy had time to develop since that last deployment, and more days during the latest tour would be spent training and standing up Iraqi counterparts, brigade commander Col. Sean B. MacFarland told his soldiers on that cold, gray January morning.

“Counterinsurgencies are tough,” he said. “Lawrence of Arabia likened it to eating soup with a knife.”

By February, the brigade took command of Tal Afar, a city of 250,000 about 40 miles from the Syrian border that had seen some progress under the departing 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

On March 8, between Tal Afar and the city of Mosul, Pfc. Ricky Salas Jr., a 22-year-old attached to the 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, became the first death of the new deployment. Four others were injured when a roadside bomb went off near Salas’ vehicle.

As the months progressed, many 1st BCT soldiers worked to take a more intimate approach to Tal Afar than their predecessors.

While the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment ground through in Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks after recapturing the city, brigade troops relied more heavily on foot patrols. The biggest challenge in Tal Afar was winning over the people, and to help them understand that the soldiers were there to help, Fleming said.

More foot patrols in the city meant less damage for locals to get angry about, and also offered troops a way to spot roadside bombs and other potential dangers.

“Foot patrols are a risk, but you will have the population talk to you,” Lt. Col. John K. Tien, the 2-37 commander, said in April. “Dismounted patrols allow face-to-face contact, as opposed to contact at the end of a tank barrel. I think the people who are not terrorists also appreciate the fact that we’re willing to get on the street and share the burden of risk with them. There’s a psychological bonding there.”

In Sinjar, an area of roughly 650,000 Iraqis near Tal Afar, a different picture emerged for soldiers from the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment. In an area with less day-to-day violence, soldiers struggled to make it clear to the locals that coalition forces were not the cure-all to their problems.

Like troops throughout Iraq, they were trying to help the Iraqis stand on their own.

“If there’s a concern about people who are participating in anti-government activities — something about [bombs] or weapons — that’s my jurisdiction,” Capt. Aaron Dixon, commander of the 1-37’s “Bulldog” Company, said in April. “But if the issue is about one farmer fighting another, one man being killed by another or a robbery, that’s the Iraqi police’s jurisdiction.”

The summer saw 1st Brigade forces battling to take control of Ramadi, which is another story in and of itself.

In late September, as “Ready First” soldiers continued to slog through, word came down that the brigade’s deployment was being extended 46 days. The brigade was extended to allow a unit from the 3rd Infantry Division its minimum 12 months respite before deploying.

“Overall, I understand why the decision was made,” Maj. Gen. Fred Robinson, 1st AD commander, said after the announcement. “But it doesn’t lessen your concern or pain.”

Instead of returning in mid-January of this year, brigade soldiers started getting back to Germany in February and early March.

In a war that has sent some soldiers on three tours already, it can inevitably get hard for some to gauge the impact their deployments have had on things overall.

The changing tides in Iraq often seem beyond the purview of a squad, platoon, company, regiment or brigade.

“I can’t say how the brigade did,” Fleming said. “I can’t say we did any good, or that we did any bad either.”

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