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Mideast edition, Friday, September 21, 2007

BÖBLINGEN, Germany — Pfc. Kara Yost was taking deep breaths, but not because she was nervous.

“The smell is so much better,” Yost said. “It’s fresher. The grass smells so good.”

Baghdad is 100-plus degrees of pavement, dirt and trash; Germany is clean and green. What a difference a day makes.

“It’s the little things you notice,” said Yost, of 1st Platoon, 554th Military Police Company, which, on Wednesday, flew to Germany from Iraq, concluding a 15-month deployment.

The 27 soldiers were attached to the Bamberg-based 630th MP Company, whose soldiers also returned Wednesday.

The “Ugly Platoon,” as they are nicknamed, oversaw up to four Iraqi police stations at a time in eastern Baghdad in an area controlled by the Schweinfurt-based 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment.

The soldiers went on more than 400 combat patrols, with most soldiers hitting the streets six out of seven days per week, said 1st Lt. Ari Fisher.

They mentored more than 1,200 Iraqi police officers to search vehicles correctly, process paperwork properly, and hold detainees humanely, among other jobs. Sometimes they simply brought the Iraqi police food and water and made sure they weren’t sleeping on the job.

Despite its high level of activity in the harsh Rustamiyah district, the platoon’s deployment was mostly casualty-free. Several were wounded, and one soldier was killed. Cpl. Karen Clifton died June 21 when a small missile was fired into her Humvee.

Clifton and her mates were guarding an intersection near the site where five 1-26 soldiers were killed in an attack on their Bradley fighting vehicle.

“If I could have done something I would have,” said Sgt. Douglas Quick, of Middletown, N.Y., who was in the Humvee with Clifton. Quick said he felt “guilty” over the incident.

“I’m relieved, relieved that he’s home,” added Quick’s wife, Krista, as they snuggled with their 2-year-old son, Blaize.

The wives of at least four soldiers from the platoon gave birth while their husbands were deployed.

“We went to the same high school, but we weren’t high-school sweethearts,” said Heidi Holladay, wife of Pfc. Benjamin Holladay. Both are from Brigham City, Utah.

“I think it was harder on her than for me, because I was so busy,” Benjamin Holladay said of the pregnancy and birth of their son, Aidan, who is now 10 months old.

“I wish I was there. I missed out on a lot of things.”

For some, it was at times a frustrating deployment. Many Iraqis did not have the same gung-ho attitude as the U.S. soldiers training them.

“Towards the end, they actually started to take over and take responsibility,” said Spc. Bradly Bechel of Bunker Hill, Ill. “Day to day, you didn’t see much of a difference. But from day one to now, you see a big difference.

“It’s kind of hard when you hand them over (to the platoon’s replacement unit). You don’t want your hard work to go down the drain after you leave.”

Fisher, the platoon leader, said that the politics of the day mattered little to his soldiers while they were on the streets becoming brothers and sisters.

“In years to come, when they sit down with each other, even ones who were not friends, they will have that bond with each other,” Fisher said. “They had that experience.”

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