In many ways it resembled Times Square or countless U.S. ports in September 1945, as troop ships arrived to screaming, flag-waving families and friends. But this time it was the parade field at Fort Belvoir.
Still, there were the hoots and hollers, cries and whispers of 'I love you' or 'I missed you' amid long, clinging kisses. The frenzy was for the 170 returning members of the 299th Engineer Company, just completing a 10-month deployment in Iraq.
The tone of this celebration was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the war is not over. Still, the 299th had weathered their baptism of fire and had returned unscathed — no casualties. "We took 170 soldiers and we brought home 170 soldiers," Capt. Steve Thompson of Alexandria, commanding officer of the 299th, told the cheering crowd in the parade field bleachers. "We understand we made sacrifices over there. But, we also realize the sacrifices you made here."
While they were away, he said, the troops in the 299th “not only… complete[d] our regular missions but we completed the mission of bridging the Euphrates River to put the 3rd Infantry Division across the river and on to Baghdad. We not only did one bridge, but two the same night in a hostile environment."
ACCORDING TO the 99th Regional Readiness Command, of which the 299th is a part, "The 299th has a very unique mission in the Army's inventory. It constructs ribbon bridges and rafting bridges to cross short expanses of water."
In Iraq, they performed those tasks "under fire from the Republican Guard dug in along the Euphrates," according to the Army. In addition to constructing the bridges, "The 299th also ferried infantry units across the Euphrates under fire, losing one boat in the process, but no lives."
On the unit's final trip back to Kuwait, after major hostilities ceased, they experienced another close call. A remote bomb exploded, damaging one of the vehicles, according to Sgt. Freddie Daniels of Washington, D.C. "We spent a good deal of time in and around Baghdad after the actual war ended," he said.
As for the continuing hostilities, Daniels said, "my impression was the people, in general, were very glad to see us. But, they didn't realize what the total cost of the conflict would be."
Both going to and coming from Iraq, the 299th processed through Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri. The unit was mobilized on Nov. 2, 2002. At 10 a.m. on Nov. 4, the soldiers bid farewell to their families at Fort Belvoir, where they are headquartered. They were just one unit of the 99th RSC that has mobilized 1,600 soldiers, who have seen action in Uzesbeckistan and Afghanistan, and now Iraq.
Ten months, 26 days, and 11 hours later, in "short timer" calculations, they returned to the waiting arms and emotions of those families and friends.
"Today, you are witnessing something very special,” said Col. T.W. Williams, garrison commander at Fort Belvoir, “the American family being reunited with their soldiers. This is something that has taken place since the American Revolution."
The families at home, waiting for the troops’ return, had something in common with those American families of the past, he said. "This country is founded on values that everyone else in the world tries to emulate. All your prayers were answered. They came home safe and sound."
But "even as we welcome these soldiers home others are still there,” he said. “Two more died today." Williams lent a poignant perspective to the continuing War on Terrorism. He narrowly escaped death on Sept. 11, 2001, when his office area was within the strike zone of the Pentagon attack.
EXEMPLIFYING THE families on the home front was to Barbara Thompson, the CO's wife, said Lt. Col. Amanda DelVillan Clark, command peace time officer for the 332 Ordinance Battalion, which supports the reserve units under deployment.
"Mrs. Thompson went above and beyond the call of duty in her role as head of the Family Readiness Group," Clark said. "Therefore, it is my honor to present her with the Commander's Coin. This is usually reserved only for military personnel."
There was praise for the soldiers too, from Sgt. Maj. Stephen Sydnor, of the 332 Ordinance Battalion. "Today we honor the first engineer company in the U.S. Army. Your service has set you apart," he said.
Thompson noted one of the factors that set them apart. "We have every walk of life in this outfit. We are full-time warriors, although we only train part-time. And it’s great to be back."
That exclamation was underscored by Sharon Totten, of Frederick, Md, wife of Sgt. Dale Totten. "We only got married in June and then he left in November," she said. "But he's been in the reserves for 12 years."
THERE’S A LONG history behind the 299th. Originally constituted as C Company, 349th Engineers on July 29, 1921, they were first ordered to active duty on May 13, 1942. Following World War II, they were redesignated the 299th and activated at Fort Belvoir.
In 1998, the 299th and the 459th, from Bridgeport, W.Va., became the Army's first multi-role bridge companies when they were equipped with the common bridge transporter. It is the prime mover for the new multi-role bridge companies, which combine both fixed and float bridging in one company, according to the Army.
At the outset of the Iraqi conflict, the unit's mission was spelled out in the following terms: "On order, the 299th Engineer Company will mobilize and prepare for war. Upon validation, the Company will deploy to the Theater of Operation to conduct assault float rafting/bridging operations and be prepared to plan and direct forward-area fixed bridge construction."
They accomplished that mission and, in the process, collected six bronze stars, one "With Valor," as well as a host of other commendations. As Lt. Col. Clark noted, "This is the U.N. of outfits."