Excited but cold, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team soldiers’ loved ones waited in the warmth of their vehicles before venturing onto Cottrell Field in 31-degree weather early Thursday morning. The group of about 350 troops returned to Fort Stewart at dawn, ready to celebrate the holiday season at home.
The 1st Brigade served in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. One group of 1st Brigade main body troops returned home late Wednesday night and more are scheduled to return this weekend and next week. The 2nd Brigade returned to Fort Stewart in October, and the 3rd Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, along with about 35 Division Special Troops Battalion troops, was welcomed home on Nov. 5. The 4th brigade deployed to Iraq in July and will return to Fort Stewart next summer. 3rd ID troops are expected to have a year or two dwell time before the next deployment cycle.
“It’s fun to be on the receiving end,” Cucolo said. The Marne commander welcomed 1st Brigade soldiers home late the night before, and patiently stood to greet more Dogface troops just after sunrise. He added the Combat Aviation Brigade recently returned to Hunter Army Airfield from a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan.
The general said he’ll express his joy at having soldiers return in “one breath” at such installation events as Thursday’s Christmas tree lighting, and then in the next breath will remind his audience “we’re not all home.”
Cucolo also spoke of 94 3rd ID soldiers currently serving in the far western corner of Afghanistan near the Iranian border.
“And I just think of them serving in December in Shindand, Afghanistan,” he said with a shiver. “Today’s Army is a modular Army,” Cucolo continued, commenting that small units of troops are sent in harm’s way to serve across the globe wherever needed.
The general said he is proud of the 1st Brigade’s performance especially after the Raiders took on the burden of covering an ever-increasing area surrounding Baghdad as U.S. troops drew down.
“One Raider Brigade equals four regular Army brigades,” Cucolo told soldiers and their families, after returning troops marched onto the field and stood in formation.
Prior to the brigade’s arrival by bus, soldiers’ parents, spouses and children huddled together under blankets or stood warming their hands with cups of hot chocolate.
Spc. Alyssa Funeerburk’s parents, Elizabeth and Gary Funeerburk of Clute, Texas, admitted they were worried about their daughter this past year.
“Thank goodness for Facebook,” Elizabeth Funeerburk said. The soldier’s mother smiled and spoke of how proud her 21-year-old daughter’s five brothers and sisters are of their sister, especially “the little ones,” who still attend elementary school.
Elizabeth Funeerburk said her family lives in small town about 60 miles south of Houston.
“Everyone who knows Alyssa is proud of her,” she said. “Even the kids she played softball with when she was 5 years old.”
An Army medic, Alyssa Funeerburk has aspirations of becoming a pediatrician one day, said her father, Gary Funeerburk.
Army spouse Michelle Thompson arrived at Cottrell Field at 5:45 a.m. to wait for her husband’s return.
“It’s worth it,” she said with a shrug.
Thompson, herself a retired Army staff sergeant, said her two previous deployment experiences helped her better understand what her husband went through this past year.
“We used Skype a lot,” she said. “Sometimes I would take the computer outside to show him some green grass … instead of him having to see sand all the time.”