Brigade applauded

One should expect a certain amount of hyperbole at events such as change of command ceremonies. In their final addresses to their troops, outgoing commanders feel an urgency to tell the soldiers that they represent the best America has to offer, that they alone gave hope to the forlorn and weary of Iraq and Afghanistan, and, as we heard several times the past few weeks, that these brave young men and women are serving in the Army’s best fighting brigade. Not simply one of the best . . . but THE best. Though the Army doesn’t acknowledge which of its 30-plus combat brigades is No. 1, that doesn’t stop leaders like Col. Wayne Grigsby Jr. from releasing their own unofficial standings. And make no mistake: the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team is alone at the top.

Sure, Grigsby was its boss over the past two years and sure it looks good on his resume to have been in command of the Army’s top group of grunts.

In what was one of his shortest ever speeches July 18, on the parade ground in front of the Infantry Center, just minutes after turning over his command, Grigsby continued to cheerlead for the 3,950 members of the brigade, which last month returned from a 15-month deployment to Iraq.

Reviewing the troops that day was 3rd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo. The division’s Command Sgt. Maj. Jesse Andrews was on hand as well. So, too, was Col. Roger Cloutier, who is the new commander of the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. All had made the trip from Fort Stewart.

All applauded when Grigsby hung the No. 1 tag on his soldiers.

Even the 3rd HBCT’s new boss, Col. Pete Jones, didn’t hesitate calling the outfit “the Army’s best brigade.”

Could it be that the 3rd really is the Army’s best?

Consider this: both Cucolo, who took command of the division on July 14, and Andrews, his top NCO, are 3rd Brigaders.

Cucolo was its commander from 1999 to 2001; Andrews was the brigade’s command sergeant major during its 2005 deployment and would have been in 2007 if he hadn’t been hand-picked by then division commander Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch to become his top non-commissioned officer.

“It is a great brigade,” said Andrews, who, in 2001, was Lt. Col. J.R. Sanderson’s sergeant major with the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment.

Cucolo, who served as the Army’s chief of public affairs, was promoted to brigadier general soon after leaving command of the 3rd Brigade.

So was Dan Allyn, now the chief of staff of the Multi-National Corps — Iraq.

Steve Salazer, who succeeded Allyn in 2003 after the latter took the brigade into Baghdad during the invasion, is also a brigadier general.

After a year at the National Training Center in California, Salazar became the deputy commanding general of the Coalition Army Advisory Training Team in Iraq.

Cloutier is also a former member of the 3rd Brigade, having been part of Salazar’s team from 2003-05 before spending a year at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He followed then Lt. Col. John Charlton as honcho of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, which, in 2005, was moved to Fort Stewart.

Any guess who Cloutier succeeded as 1st Brigade commander at Stewart? Charlton, of course. He, by the way, is headed to the Pentagon, where he will join the Joint Staff as chief of the Iraq Division.

Grigsby, it should be noted, is also Pentagon-bound. He, too, will work for the Joint Staff.

Before he and his wife Cynthia left Fort Benning, Grigsby looked back at the team he inherited on June 22, 2006, and his 2-year stint as a brigade commander.

“I’ll miss it, obviously,” he said in his office on Kelley Hill, a place that he calls “a little piece of heaven.”

“I’ll never likely again be in this kind of position. It was a once in a lifetime job. I’ve spent 37 months of my life in combat but the last 15 were very special. Just serving with these soldiers, some of them as young as 18, is probably the highlight of my career.”

As did Allyn and Salazar before him. Grigsby lost some soldiers in combat.

“I will always think of the 35 who were killed and the 162 who were wounded, many of them very seriously,” he said.

He said that the final draft of his unit’s history cannot be written for several weeks.

“We must see how our successors (the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division) perform at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Hammer over time. That will tell us how successful the transition of authority went.”

Think back to 2006 when the brigade returned from Baqouba and Diyala Province.

Salazar and his troops had pretty well tamed what had been one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq.

Two years later, Diyala is once again a hotbed of extremist unrest in Iraq.

The January 2007 “surge” may have had a lot to do with that. Since the focus was on Baghdad during the months that followed the arrival of five additional brigades, many of the extremists fled to nearby Diyala.

Cucolo is certainly a big fan of the brigade. “Wayne has left a fantastic legacy for Pete Jones,” he said at the July 18 change of command ceremony. “And Pete will be the perfect fit for this brigade.”

While some may argue the merits of calling oneself No. 1, there can be little argument that the 3rd Brigade has been the most deployed outfit since 2003.

“These guys will start individual training next week,” said Grigsby, who is well aware that the 3rd ID has been told to start preparing for yet another return to Iraq, perhaps as early as next fall. “And collective training should begin in November-December.”

And, he added, “Pete’s the man to lead the Hammer Brigade to the next fight.”