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VIDEO: Soldiers return from Europe; Nearly 300 welcomed home Tuesday

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FORT STEWART — Back from their mission in Europe, nearly 300 members of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1 Armored Brigade Combat Team rushed into the arms of their loved ones early Tuesday morning at Cottrell Field.

The brigade is completing a six-month-long deployment to Grafenwoehr Training Facility in Germany, working alongside the United States’ NATO allies.

“These soldiers and their families are phenomenal,” said Col. Kevin Lambert, the 3rd Infantry Division’s deputy commanding general for maneuver. “We didn’t know how long they were going to be gone.”

Division leaders learned early on during the deployment that it would be about six months. But, Col. Lambert noted, there was some uncertainty. And the 1st Brigade wasn’t at Fort Stewart for long before it shipped out to Europe.

The 1st Brigade was back from a deployment to Korea for only a short while when they were told to head to Europe. Originally, the plans for 1st Brigade soldiers were to turn in their existing equipment and draw new Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and other gear in a modernization.

“They were notified on very short notice after the world changed on February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine,” Lambert said.

Since the brigade had just gotten back from Korea, the soldiers were the best postured combat team to change course and deploy in early March to Germany. Their deployment, Lambert said, assured U.S. allies in the region and deterred further Russian aggression in Europe.

“It’s a testament to the brigade and their ability to be resilient and stay focused, and they understood the urgency and the significance of the mission at hand,” he said.

The soldiers’ families, meanwhile, were eager to greet their soldiers well before dawn.

“This is the best thing I could have in my life, to have him home,” said Giovanna Wheeler, mother of Staff Sgt. John Wheeler. “I’ve been looking forward to this day forever.”

Kailyn Clark, with her 5-year-old son and nearly 2-year-old daughter Caroline by her side, was waiting for her husband, Spec. Aaron Clark.

They got the word while the family was in North Carolina that the brigade had orders to head to Europe.

“It was kind of a rush to get back here and spend as much with time him as possible,” Clark said. “At the time, it was really nerve-wracking, because there was so much going on.”

The Clarks’ daughter was born just before he had to deploy, and he’s been gone to Korea and Germany since.

“It’s exciting. It’s everything,” Kailyn said of the reunion. “Caroline mostly knows her daddy from pictures, because she’s so young. I’m ready for a hug and ready for him to be home.”

Using pre-positioned equipment, 1st ABCT soldiers trained with troops from 11 other NATO countries. Soldiers from the 1st Brigade spent the bulk of their time at two bases in Germany, and elements of the brigade visited bases throughout Germany and Europe.

“They went through an aggressive collective training plan, culminating in a brigade-level exercise in Germany,” Lambert said. “For this brigade and what it was asked to do, mission accomplished. The world changed on February 24 and I think we’re going to be looking at the security situation of the plains of Central Europe for a long time.”

The training was different from their stint in Korea and was beneficial, Staff Sgt. John Wheeler said.

“The training we did was the best training I’ve done in the military,” he said. “It was a lot of hard work. It was a lot of work that had to get done. “

There will be 16 or 17 more flights of 1st ABCT troops landing over the next few weeks. For the soldiers of the Raider Brigade, there is a long-awaited block leave pending. In the meantime, they are glad to be back home.

“It’s a surreal feeling,” Wheeler said. ‘I’m just overwhelmed with excitement to have my family here with me. It’s always an amazing feeling, and I would not trade this for anything else.”

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Army Specialist Luke Lopez-Yocius is welcomed home by his wife, Adeana Lopez-Yocius, and their family dog, Jersey, Tuesday morning on Cottrell Field on Fort Stewart following a six-month deployment to Europe. Photo by Lewis Levine
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Staff Sgt. John Wheeler, center, and his parents, Jay and Giovanna, gather at Cottrell Field early Tuesday morning. Photo by Pat Donahue
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Mason Clark, 5, holds up a sign welcoming back his father, Spc. Aaron Clark. Photo by Pat Donahue