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For single soldiers returning to Europe from the Middle East, “welcome home” means returning to the barracks with family still far away.
For single soldiers returning to Europe from the Middle East, “welcome home” means returning to the barracks with family still far away. (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — The war- and travel-weary soldiers filed off the chartered bus to the joyful screams of wives and open-armed children running for hugs a year gone missing.

Company A, 302nd Military Intelligence Battalion was finally home from Iraq.

But for many of the 68 soldiers who returned Friday to Heidelberg, Germany, home is still a long way away.

“Will you hold my hand,” whispered a sergeant in Pfc. Cody Sheldon’s ear as Alpha’s commander stood before the troops for one last formation with tearful flag-waving wives and children standing on the sidelines.

“It’s hard,” said Sheldon, a 19-year-old single soldier from Baltimore, as he lugged his gear from the bus up into his barracks. “You knew there were going to be all those families here, but it kind of leaves you wishing you were already home with your own family.”

Sheldon said he’s planning to surprise his parents when he heads home on leave in a few days.

“They still think I’m in Kuwait,” he said. “I’m just going to show up at the door.”

As the married soldiers drive away with spouses and children, Sheldon and the other single soldiers still have some work to do.

Like many units, Alpha left for Iraq in a hurry. Personal belongings in the barracks — everything from clothes and TVs to snowboards and cell phones — were boxed up and put into storage after they left.

Moving into newly renovated barracks, the single soldiers have to wait in the halls as a sergeant works her way room-by-room to sign over their keys and boxes of personal items.

“Hey, these are great rooms!” said Spc. Matthew Vaughn as walked into his new room. “This is much nicer than the barracks we were in before.”

“My snowboard better be in here or there’ll be hell to pay,” quipped Spc. Ben Heidenreich as he peered into his closet stacked full of boxes. “Whose bike is this? It’s not mine.”

Unit leaders have left a loaf of bread and a small bag of groceries in each room for the new arrivals.

“That’s kind of nice of them,” said Heidenreich’s roommate, Spc. David Delgado, as he checks out his own room and the adjoining kitchen area and bathroom.

The rooms and food are small compensation, though, for many of the young soldiers. Under the Army’s “reintegration” program, it will be at least seven days before any of these soldiers will be allowed to sign off on leave and fly home to the States.

It wasn’t not all glum faces, though. Far from it. While still far from home, everyone was clearly glad to be out of Iraq.

Spontaneous bear hugs were exchanged as random hoots of delight echoed through the barracks as soldiers sifted through their boxes.

Outside in the hallway, a party had already erupted. Three hours to go until noon, Spc. Gregory Dulin was cracking open beers for his buddies.

Known in the barracks as “The Dude,” Dulin arrived from Iraq a few weeks earlier. “I’m just doing what I can to welcome them back,” said Dulin, handing over another beer.

With rucksacks and gear still splayed next to doors, the soldiers were already telling war stories and remember-whens.

“It’ll be a pretty good party tonight, I imagine,” said Vaughn. “There’s a lot steam to let off.”

Army officials brace for barracks crunch

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Single soldiers returning from Iraq could be forgiven for wondering where leaders are going to put everyone.

According to Russ Hall, head of the Army’s Installation Management Agency, in many cases units are leaving the Middle East as much as 42 percent over-strength. That’s because of “stop loss” and “stop movement” levies put on units that prevented soldiers from ending their contracts or moving to new assignments while deployed in the combat zone.

New troops, however, have continued to arrive in those units.

The result, Hall told a gathering of rear detachment leaders in Heidelberg recently, “is that units are returning some as high as 132 percent strength. Here in Heidelberg, some units are returning as high as 142 percent.”

While married soldiers always have the option of living off base, Hall said he’s looking in every place possible to house the single troops.

“I have given authorization to all the base support battalions to lease housing downtown,” said Hall. Officials are looking at using hotels and spare on-base family housing units to take up the slack until unit levels stabilize.

IMA declined to provide an official to address specifics on the barracks crunch.

Spokeswoman Millie Waters said IMA officials are not clear on many of the details and were still working with local commands to assess the magnitude of the problem and how long the soldiers should expect to be in temporary lodging.

— Jon R. Anderson

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