About 300 3rd Infantry Division soldiers making up the trail party for the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 2nd Armor Brigade Combat Team arrived home Saturday evening. They were welcomed by family and friends, including 16 of their Wounded Warriors who sustained serious combat injuries during their deployment to Afghanistan.
The crowds began to gather at the reviewing stands on Cottrell Field an hour before the troops returned. Children, like 4-year-old Eva Bateman, raced with each other or played in the grass. Ricki Bateman said her daughter was eager to see her dad, Spc. Derek Bateman. Laura Tharp, who was there to greet her husband Spc. John Tharp, helped Bateman keep an eye on little Eva.
Jamie Simpson had dressed her three boys in “I love you Daddy” T-shirts. Jorian, 6, Blaze, 4 and Lucian, 2, stood in a row, oldest to youngest, eagerly waiting for their dad, Spc. Kevin Simpson.
As the crowds began reacting to the buses arriving, 16 Wounded Warriors also began arriving, several in wheelchairs, others on crutches.
“These guys have been through the meat grinder,” said Fort Stewart Public Affairs Officer Kevin Larson, who noted the Desert Rogue Battalion had two soldiers killed in action and numerous soldiers wounded in action during their nine-month deployment. “They were in a tough spot, but they did a great job.”
The Wounded Warriors created a formation behind the Marne Patch in front of the reviewing stand, with wheelchair-bound soldiers taking the front rank. On the other side of the field, the trail party created its own formation, which marched out of the darkness toward the cheering crowd and fellow soldiers.
Stopping just short of the podium, Desert Rogue Commander Lt. Col. Charles Armstrong reported to Lt. Col. Thomas Cunningham, deputy commander for the 2nd ABCT. Cunningham welcomed them home and reminded them that in addition to their friends and families, 16 of their wounded comrades were there to greet them. Cheers, whistles and scores of “hooahs” erupted from the formation and the bleachers.
Following the National Anthem, an invocation and the Marne and Army songs, the crowd members were told to go onto the field and welcome home their soldiers.
Spc. Michael Speck paused from kissing his wife Tanya to say they had been told when their plane landed at Hunter Army Airfield that they would be greeted by some of their wounded comrades.
Two of those Wounded Warriors talked with reporters after the ceremony.
“I came down here Thursday (from Walter Reed Army Medical Center),” said Spc. Gregory Hedrick, who was surrounded and comforted by his wife, Julie, their 4-month old son, Hunter, his sergeant, Sgt. Bryan Shi and Shi’s wife, Michelle. “I’m ready to re-join them, but I’m going to be medically retired.”
Hedrick, who lost his left leg when a rocket propelled grenade exploded near him in late September, said with deep remorse that one of his buddies was killed and another wounded. With three deployments behind him, Hedrick said he was fine with medical retirement. The 60mm mortar gunner said he’s considering an internship with U.S. Customs.
When a reporter asked him if he had anything he wanted to say to the public about his traumatic experience, the 27-year-old replied, “Don’t give up.”
Spc. Eric Clark said he also is facing medical retirement. The 20-year-old lost his left leg and a couple fingers on his left hand, and he suffered extensive damage to his right leg when he stepped on an improvised explosive device Aug. 23. Like Hedrick, he didn’t have much to say about his injuries. He noted that one of his comrades had been wounded by shrapnel from the blast that took his leg. Mostly, he was glad the rest of his unit is now home safely.
“It’s good these guys are back home,” he said. “I won’t have to worry about them anymore. I’m glad they’re safe now.”
Clark was wearing a prosthetic leg but was still in a wheelchair. He said he was allowed to walk on it for the first time two months after the injury.