For the second time in four years, the Yankton-based Charlie Battery has returned home from war.
On Tuesday morning, area residents lined the streets of Yankton to welcome three buses holding about 130 soldiers returning from Kuwait. The soldiers had traveled overnight from Fort McCoy, WI, where they had completed their demobilization process.
As Charlie Battery pulled into Yankton on east Highway 50, they were greeted by more than a spring day of nearly 80 degrees. They also saw massive displays of yellow ribbons on trees, posts and street signs.
After a year in the desert, it was a sight for the soldiers' sore eyes.
First Sgt. Matt LaCroix said the final miles to home were actually the toughest of the trip that started half-way around the world.
"I would say the anticipation of getting here was stronger than the last time (in 2006)," he said. "I was texting my wife, 'We're here on the road' or 'We're here in Sioux Falls.'"
Charlie Battery was among more than 300 soldiers serving with the 1st Battalion, 147th Field Artillery and 147th Forward Support Company. The units served under the 115th Fire Brigade of Cheyenne, WY.
The trip from Fort McCoy started at 2 a.m. and took longer than expected, LaCroix said. But the wait – and the green scenery upon arrival – was worth it, he said.
"We arrived around 9 a.m., and the weather was so nice," he said. "It wasn't desert or rock or sand."
Then came sight of the yellow ribbons, signaling a heartfelt welcome home, LaCroix said. He described it as an emotional moment.
"There aren't the words to express the gratitude and thanks to the community of Yankton," he said. "You ride into town, and you see the support. It gives you chills and goose bumps."
The outpouring of support continued at the Summit Activities Center, where an estimated 3,000 people nearly filled the bleachers and seats on the floor. The crowd included a large contingent of students welcoming home the troops and witnessing history in action.
Playing A Key Role
Lt. Col. David Chase noted the unit's important role in the war on terror.
Charlie Battery wasn't working in a combat zone like its previous deployment, where the soldiers trained Iraqi police, Chase said. During the previous mission, Charlie Battery suffered four fatalities and major injuries.
However, that doesn't mean the recent mission was any less dangerous or important, Chase said.
"In Kuwait, there are a lot of bad guys who don't like us doing our work. They have a problem with freedom," he said. "We act every day as if a soldier's life depends on it, because it does."
With the stakes so high, Charlie Battery and other units can't afford to make mistakes, Chase said.
"The bad guys only have to get it right once, and we have to get it right every time," he said.
During its year-long mission in Kuwait, the 1/147 oversaw security for the Seaport of Debarkation/Embarkation (SEPOD/E). Through those efforts, massive amounts of ammunition and equipment streamed safely into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chase noted the unit's massive number of security searches without a successful terrorist incident.
"If you are a sports fan and keeping track, it's 1st Battalion, 147th Field Artillery 588,297, the Bad Guys 0," Chase said, producing cheers from the audience.
On July 29, 2009, Charlie Battery took over security detail for the SEPOD and the southern half of Kuwait, Chase said. Charlie Battery worked with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard during the operations.
"We handled 90 percent of the ammunition and equipment in the Global War on Terror," he said. "It's like a faucet. If you stop it, you shut off the water flow and that affects hundreds of thousands of lives every day."
Charlie Battery searched nearly 185,000 individuals and 114,000 vehicles, Chase said. Alpha Battery of Aberdeen searched nearly 205,000 individuals and 84,000 vehicles.
Combined, the two units searched about 390,000 individuals and nearly 200,000 vehicles, Chase said. Alpha Battery also worked with 12.5 million pounds of ammunition, he said.
Chase pointed to full auditorium at the deactivation ceremony and the sea of yellow ribbons around Yankton.
"In South Dakota, we don't just deploy soldiers," he said. "We deploy communities, and that's evident when we see the support here today."
Chase gave thanks for the family, friends, employers and co-workers who cared for the home front during the mission. He also noted the sacrifices of veterans in the audience.
Much has changed – both in combat and at home – during the Kuwait mission, Chase said.
"A year ago, we stood before you for the activation ceremony," he said. "It seems like the year has gone by really fast. But it has also seemed really long."
Serving With Honor
At Tuesday's ceremony, Cpt. Scott Green credited Charlie Battery's success to the seven Army values – Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage – which form the acronym LEADERSHIP.
Green also recognized the "unwavering support" from the region. He reminded the soldiers of resources helping them reintegrate into everyday life.
The soldiers look forward to resuming their jobs after some down time, Green said.
"We will be back to work soon, but not too soon," he added with a grin.
On a somber note, Green described a Dec. 4, 2009, flag-flying ceremony to remember Charlie Battery's fallen from the last deployment. U.S. flags were presented to the families of Sgt. First Class Richard Schild, Staff Sgt. Dan Cuka, Staff Sgt. Greg Wagner and Sgt. Allen Kokesh Jr.
A flag was also presented to Sgt. Corey Briest, who suffered traumatic brain injuries and multiple injuries during the last deployment.
"The flag today represents the sacrifice experienced by Charlie Battery. We will never forget you," Green told the families, who each received a standing ovation from the audience.
Tuesday's scene was far different than last year's activation ceremony at Yankton Middle School, said Maj. General Steven Doohen.
"Emotions were running high. Then we moved forward with the deployment, and we didn't know what to expect," he said. "We had 30 days at Fort Hood (Texas) and then off to Kuwait."
Doohen, the South Dakota adjutant general, said he was overwhelmed at the unit's achievements when he paid a Christmas visit to Kuwait.
"You see how much equipment came through that port. Strategically, it's very important," Doohen said. "I met with the brigadier commander. He wished all the units were like South Dakota, who was head and shoulders above all the units he had."
A Grateful Nation
At the deactivation ceremony, Gov. Mike Rounds said he spoke "on behalf of a grateful state and nation" as commander-in-chief of the South Dakota National Guard.
Rounds noted at least one Yankton resident who couldn't welcome home the troops because of official duties. Monday night, the governor met with District 18 Sen. Jean Hunhoff and other legislative leaders in Pierre for final budget negotiations. The 2010 session was scheduled to end Tuesday.
"I said that I would be in Yankton (for the deactivation)," the governor said. "Sen. Hunhoff said, 'I wish I was going to be there with you,' but she sends her best wishes."
Charlie Battery has formed bonds that will last a lifetime, Rounds said. The soldiers now begin the transition back to everyday life, he said.
"You have the opportunity to rejoin your family and friends," he said. "It's not easy to start over. But as you look back, it's one of the best days for the rest of your life."
Rounds saluted the soldiers for their sacrifices.
"This country is the land of the free because it's the home of the brave," he said. "Thank you for everything you have done."
The program featured greetings from the South Dakota congressional delegation of U.S. Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
Yankton Mayor Dan Specht welcomed the troops. He noted that he received a 1/147 coin of excellence on April 18, 2009. The coin contains the four standards of discipline, courage, strength and loyalty. Specht said he put the coin next to a silver stone with the word "prayer."
The two symbols seem appropriate for the current Holy Week and the troops' homecoming celebration, Specht said.
As the ceremony concluded, LaCroix read the roll call, and Cpt. Martin Yost read the deactivation order. Command Sgt. Major George Arends delivered a safety message, while Green provided closing remarks.
After the ceremony, LaCroix said he appreciated working with tremendous leadership as well as the development shown by the unit during the mission. "We have outstanding personnel," he said.
With the deactivation complete, LaCroix said he looked forward to some time off and the upcoming Easter weekend.
"It will be great to relax and spend time with family and friends," he said.