The flags of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division were uncased late Thursday, officially ending a nine-month deployment to Kuwait and returning about 150 soldiers back to Fort Benning.
“It’s fantastic to get back,” 1st Lt. Anthony Rea said after giving wife, Melissa, and daughter Emmy a big hug.
When the flight touched down at Lawson Army Airfield at Fort Benning just after 6 p.m., it was the last group of soldiers returning to the post since about 2,000 deployed to Kuwait in June. The soldiers trained in Kuwait in a series of joint exercises.
Col. Johnnie Johnson, commander of the brigade, was among the last soldiers to step off the charted plane. His wife Melissa was at the front line of greeters who gave him a hug and a kiss.
“It’s been a long nine months to get back here at Fort Benning, but it’s been a very rewarding time for us,” Johnson said before soldiers were reunited with families at Freedom Hall. “It feels great”
The commander said the deployment was challenging because it was done without the soldiers having any leave. “We missed our families,” he said.
The highlight of the deployment was taking part in Hammer Strike, a combined arms exercise with the Air force, training on every function of the combat team. Johnson said the deployment was also a chance to train and develop a relationship with the Kuwaitis. With the entire brigade back at Kelley Hill, Johnson said the soldiers will get more training before they are allowed to take 30 days of block leave. During the next couple of months, soldiers also will start moving to new assignments, including Johnson. “I’m waiting for orders from the Army,” he said.
Melissa Rea, wife of Anthony Rea, said she missed his presence in their home, having dinner and waking up together. “We had face time almost everyday,” she said of hook-ups through Skype. “That helped out.”
She said the couple plan to take a trip to Europe during his leave later this month.
Joe Rea described his twin brother as his best friend. “I missed talking to him and chatting about life in general,” he said. “Thank God we had Skype to see him.”
Maj. Dean Laansma was among about 10 Air Force airmen who deployed with the 3rd Brigade. He was able to return home a day after his son, Cayden, was born in August. He just turned 7-months old.
“Just being away from the family,” was the toughest part of the deployment,” Laansma said.
Wife Nikki said it was a challenge being a “single mommy.”
Staff Sgt. Christina McEachin was so happy to see her daughter Zaniyah, 6, she gave her a ride on her back.
“It feels great to be back home,” she said. “ A nine-month long deployment is a long time to be away from family and friends. Just coming home to a warm welcome is the best thing for me. It is the first time my family’s been here for a welcome home ceremony. It means a lot to me. Trying to be mom and soldier at the same time are a little bit difficult,” she said.
Throughout the deployment, Johnson said he was proud of how nearly half of the brigade kept equipment and other soldiers together while the brigade was deployed.
“We are just proud of the Sledgehammer Brigade and I’m a proud commander,” he said.