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‘Advise and assist’ troops back home

The last of the nearly 4,000 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team troops rolled into Freedom Hall Tuesday to the cheers of hundreds of families. Since mid-August, 3rd HBCT Soldiers have been returning home from a yearlong deployment to Iraq.

In the past year, the brigade worked with Iraqi security forces and provided support to Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other organizations helping Iraq to build civil capacity. “The end result was the Iraqi people see their military, their police, their department of border enforcement, their provincial leaders taking care of them, and not a U.S. or foreign power providing for their needs and security,” said COL Pete Jones, 3rd HBCT’s commander, on the brigade’s advisory mission.

The goal of the brigade’s yearlong deployment was to help close or turn over control of bases in Babil, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Karbala and Wasit provinces to the government of Iraq by Sept. 1, the start of Operation New Dawn. Since Jan. 1, U.S. forces have closed or returned more than 130 bases to the Iraqi government, according to Army statistics.

The drawdown of U.S. forces began in 2008 after the peak of surge operations and is scheduled to end Dec. 31, 2011, in accordance with the Iraq-U.S. Security Agreement.

As part of the drawdown, the unit retrograded or redistributed equipment, with a majority going to Kuwait for transport back to stateside facilities, said MAJ Lawrence Comacho, brigade logistician. Some equipment went to support the war in Afghanistan, he said.

This is the fourth deployment for the brigade, which has spent a total of nearly four and a half years in Iraq since 2003.

“It’s been historic,” COL Jones said, recalling the brigade’s changing role in Iraq.

In 2003, the brigade embarked on a 15-month deployment with 3rd Infantry Division as part of Operation Thunder Run. The brigade, along with a brigade from the 101st Airborne Division, was the first to reach Baghdad in the initial wave.

In 2005, the brigade deployed for 12 months and conducted full-spectrum operations in Diyala, parts of Salahuddin and western Ramadi provinces.

The brigade deployed again in 2007 for 15 months as the third of five surge brigades and straddled portions of eastern and southeastern Baghdad in an effort to protect the city.

The brigade’s most recent deployment marked a transition to an advisory role. The brigade was responsible for advise-and-assist missions across five provinces in Iraq — Babil, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Karbala and Wasit.

“We went from us being in the lead to seeing the Iraqis take over and be in charge of securing their country,” he said.

But the mission wasn’t without cost.

“Whether it’s stability operations or not, when you roll out of the gate it’s still a dangerous place,” COL Jones said.

The brigade lost several Soldiers, including four to enemy action, he said.

“My heart goes out to those families their deaths were not in vain. This mission has gone forward and as we look back at the couple hundred wounded and more than one hundred killed in this brigade since OIF1, we can see (progress) to where, hopefully, we’ve handed off our mission and there will not be another opportunity to go back — not because we don’t want to support the Iraqis but because we don’t need to support the Iraqis.”

The brigade’s advisory mission passes to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Hood, Texas.