Almost two weeks after the first wave of Idaho soldiers returned from Iraq, the last 10 or so are expected to land on U.S. soil today. More than 1,500 members of the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team have been making their way home in what the military refers to as "chalks," or waves. All of them first landed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington for demobilization before flying commercially back home.
On Sept. 8, Citydesk and a handful of reporters from other news outlets accompanied Col. Tim Marsano of the Idaho Air National Guard on a C-12 Huron to Lewis-McChord, where Idaho soldiers are completing their demobilization checklists—which include medical and dental reviews, a mental-health assessment, and a session with a chaplain among the tasks—before being flown home. The process takes about 10 days for each soldier, even with a team of nearly 125 people acting as a support group to efficiently shepherd the troops from place to place, help track their progress and ensure that they're getting the basics like food and water taken care of.
But in between all the appointments returning soldiers must get through before getting home, there is plenty of downtime.
Michael Knighton, 19, from Pocatello, has spent much of that time talking to his wife, whom he's seen little of since their wedding day nine months ago.
"I text my wife all day to fill time. I talked to her for like five hours yesterday," said Knighton. "It's really nice talking to her every day."
Knighton enlisted at 18, and upon finishing basic training in December, headed to Iraq, where he met the 116th several months into its deployment. Like all of Idaho's returning soldiers, he'll get 30 days leave once he gets home, and he said he and his wife are considering spending some of that time hiking in Alberta, Canada.
About the war he's just returned from, Knighton said he knows a lot of Americans "don't like why we're there."
"Some people might say that the war in Iraq doesn't really matter much anymore. That it's a forgotten war. But we were all there, and we're never gonna forget it. It's a part of our lives, and we'll never forget anything we did for our country."
For 29-year-old Spc. Vernon Richmond from Idaho Falls, care packages he received from complete strangers while in Iraq proved that not everyone has forgotten about the men and women who are fighting U.S. wars.
"I always appreciated it when we got support from people in Idaho. It's the thought that people still remember, because we've been in Afghanistan and Iraq for so long," said Richmond. "I'm glad the American people's attention hasn't faded away from people over there."
Although approximately 500 of the returning 1,500 soldiers are facing joblessness, Richmond is one of those who isn't worried. In his civilian life, he's a helicopter pilot for a company called Bristow that provides transportation to and from oil rigs for workers.
Staff Sgt. John Crumpton, 43, of Kuna is also one of those coming home to a job. He'll return to work as a prison correctional officer, a job he's held since 2006. Like most of the Idaho soldiers Citydesk spoke with, Crumpton expects to return home this weekend, planning to see his wife and three kids at the airport.
In the Aug. 31 edition of Boise Weekly, news editor George Prentice reported on the behind-the-scenes efforts to coordinate the soldiers' return home. For 31-year-old Sgt. David Bell from Caldwell, who's returning from his second deployment, he's noticed there's a lot more down time in between tasks than the last time he was demobilized. Perhaps that's because the demobilization team worked overtime through the Labor Day weekend to keep troops moving quickly through their checklists.
Also working to connect with soldiers before they return home is the staff of the V.A. Medical Center in Boise, who have been at Lewis-McChord for several weeks enrolling soldiers in V.A. programs and identifying anyone who may need more immediate attention.
Dan Ashley is an Iraq War veteran from Boise who demobilized through Lewis-McChord in 2005. Now he's on the processing side as a Veterans Outreach Program specialist with the Mobile Veteran Center.
"The skills that they've been focusing on and honing in the combat environment to help them survive are the same skills back here that are kind of keeping them down and really keeping them from connecting back with their families," said Ashley.
He said when he returned home in 2005, his main concern was getting home as quickly as possible. Now his hope is that through the Mobile Veteran Center, he's helping to plant a seed so that the returning troops know they have someone they can talk to if they need it.
"Everybody comes back with some readjustment issues they need to work on," said Ashley. "Some can be minor—like trying to get back into a sleep pattern. They might have some difficulty with hyper vigilance or maybe some general anxiety. If they work that early on, they'll progress through that fairly successfully."
But until their feet are back on the ground in Idaho, most of the troops set to return this weekend are focused on the same thing that had Ashley's attention when he was at Lewis-McChord six years ago: getting home.