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Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

BAD KREUZNACH, Germany, Jan. 3, 1997 – Yellow ribbons sprouted from fences and trees. Second and third story barracks windows bore tall white, cutout letters spelling "WELCOME HOME!" and "AMERICAN HEROES!"

Inside newly renovated barracks, each freshly made bed bore a chocolate mint on the pillow, compliments of the area's family support groups. One handmade banner carried the best order of the day: "Get out of those BDUs and into our arms!"

Everything was ready for the division homecoming. After nearly a year apart -- a long, slow year filled with danger, uncertainty and fear -- wives and husbands, sons and daughters were ready to honor their soldiers gone to war. The Army's 1st Armored Division was finally home from the strife and destruction that is Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The division, reinforced with other V Corps units, became IFOR's Task Force Eagle. The troops crossed the Sava River bridge into Bosnia Dec. 31, 1995.

They endured "mud, mud, and more mud, and the worst Bosnian winter on record," said Col. Benny Williams, commander, 16th Force Support Group. "The challenge was the troops against the elements and simply getting the job done. Sacrifices were made, but the reward was saying we did our job and we did it to standard."

Capt. Christine Sandoval, 501st Military Intelligence Battalion, said it was a long year -- "very rewarding professionally, but very tiring."

"The challenge was overcoming the routine," Sandoval said. "It was definitely a ground hog day; you had to overcome that. It was wonderful to come home."

Williams and Sandoval offered advice to the stabilization force troops now replacing them in Bosnia. "Stay alert," Sandoval said.

"Look at the good that's come about by being deployed," Williams said. "The sacrifices you're making now are sort of small in terms of the future of Bosnia."

Spec. Gail Estrella, also of the 501st, was an all-source intelligence analyst in Tuzla. "I got to do my real job and plenty of it," she said. "There were plenty of long hours."

The challenge was being patient, "learning to hang in there, and learning not to walk on the grass," she said, referring to the minefields. "I don't even walk on the grass now. It's an instinct. You just had to keep your bearings at all times, because you're not useful to anyone if you're hurt."

"The soldiers and their families are very proud of what they've accomplished. We're all very happy to be home," said Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, division commander.

A year after U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry saw the division deploy for its controversial NATO peace implementation operation, he had returned to welcome the troops home. Nash said the division was deeply appreciative of the secretary's recognition.

After a 19-gun cannon salute, Perry told division soldiers and families at a homecoming ceremony their commitment and sacrifice was vitally necessary to bring lasting peace to Bosnia.

"You will tell stories about driving your Humvees along treacherous roads lined with mines;" he said, "about countless patrols in miserable weather, never knowing if you would be attacked; and about enduring the weight of full-protective gear every day inside a base camp, knee-deep in mud ...

"But there is another story you need to tell -- how the 1st Armored Division made history. How the 1st Armored Division wrote the book on peacekeeping operations. How you secured the peace in a war-torn land."

In the future, Perry said, no military will embark on any peacekeeping operation without studying the success of the division in Bosnia. "You can all be enormously proud of how well you have served your country," he said.

Perry said critics had labeled Operation Joint Endeavor a "mission impossible." They predicted armed resistance and thousands of casualties, he said, but 1st Armored Division proved the critics wrong.

"In Bosnia, the killing fields have been converted to grain fields," he said. "This fall Bosnians had a harvest of wheat and corn instead of a harvest of death and destruction."

During an breakfast meeting with the division's senior officers and NCOs, Perry presented Legion of Merit Awards to 11 division leaders. "Your performance truly stunned everybody, especially the warring parties, and enabled peace to take hold the way it did," Perry told them.

"It took guts and moral courage to ensure every soldier lived up to the tough force protection standards you laid down," he said. "Flak vests and helmets almost everywhere. Traveling in platoon-sized groups. And the infamous General Order Number One [no alcohol consumption]. That paid off. You had fewer casualties and fewer accidents in your year in Bosnia than the year before in garrison."

During the division homecoming ceremony, Perry presented awards, including two Soldier's Medals, to about 30 division soldiers.

Cpl. Francisco J. Alcantar, A Company, 40th Engineer Battalion, received the Soldier's Medal for saving the life of 2nd Lt. Robert Washburn after the officer accidently triggered an anti-tank mine. Fragments from the blast wounded others in the engineer squad at the site.

Alcantar was administering first aid to Washburn when he realized the injured officer was sitting on a booby-trapped anti-tank mine. Division officials said Alcantar demonstrated outstanding courage and employed his professional skills to remove Washburn from the minefield.

Spec. Chad E. Blair, 236th Medical Company, also received the Soldier's Medal for repeatedly being lowered into a minefield to treat and hoist evacuate critically wounded Danish soldiers. According to division officials, Blair showed great personal bravery and a willingness for self-sacrifice to come to the aid of the gravely wounded.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer said from the time U.S. troops went in to Bosnia, they saved a lot of lives. "They made a tremendous contribution to world peace," he said. "It was a great job by a great organization."

Along with honoring division soldiers for their efforts, Perry praised the division's family support groups for keeping the home fires burning.

"You have truly given of yourselves to support the soldiers deployed in Bosnia," he said. "You have given this gift every day for the families left behind and by your compassion with special needs or hardships.

"Being deployed is tough on soldiers because they worry about those whom the love who are left back home," Perry said. "You made things a little easier on them, because they knew while they were away, you were here to help take care of their families.

"Being deployed is tough on families, too, because things like raising kids and managing the family budget suddenly become a lot more difficult. You made things a little easier on our families by being their with advice or with help. Or by being there just to listen."

Donna Nash, wife of the division commander, said a sisterhood developed among the wives left behind. "There's a uniqueness to living through a deployment when you're already forward-deployed to Germany and your husbands are sent off to another country," she said. "We were reliving Desert Storm almost as far as family support groups go and just caring for each other."

At least half of the division's 20,000 soldiers are married, Nash said. "We already had our family support groups established, so we simply made them more active. We made sure met a lot more often, and we made sure there were lots of activities for the children. The German communities were very supportive offering tours of city hall, trips for the wives and things like that."

The hardest part of being separated is when there's a crisis at home, Nash said. "When a wife is having a miscarriage or other health problem, or an ill child -- that's when everybody has to kick in and do meals, give rides and go to the hospital and hold hands and cry along with everyone."

Family support group members supported each other and kept each other informed during the deployment, said Lenora Williams, wife of the 16th Force Support Group commander.

A veteran of his previous absences during Desert Storm, she said, "You never get used to it. You just adjust." Once the soldiers return, she said, it's another adjustment "sharing the checkbook, parental responsibility -- things like that.

"You've dealt with it for so long it becomes second nature and then to have to start sharing it again becomes kind of hard," she said. "When the husbands come home, they want to know, 'Have you changed the oil? Did you put a new windshield on?' And you look at them and say, 'Yeah! You weren't here; I had to do it.'"

The deployment of 20,000 troops left a gap in the military community, but now with troops safely home, life began getting back to normal.

One division family member said, "The lines have been so long at the bank and the post office -- but it's worth it!"

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