First Arctic Wolves Return to Alaska After 16 Months in Iraq
By Brian Lepley and Spc. L.B. Edgar, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT RICHARDSON, Alaska, Nov. 27, 2006 – Two days after Thanksgiving, the families of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team had a lot to be thankful for as three planeloads of the “Arctic Wolves” returned from a 16-month deployment to Iraq.
Families of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment see their soldiers for the first time in 16 months as they file into Buckner Gym at Fort Richardson, Alaska, Nov. 25 for their homecoming ceremony. Photo by Brian Lepley '(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Fort Wainwright welcomed more than 620 soldiers and Fort Richardson welcomed another 215 troops Nov. 25. More flights through this week and next were expected to get more than 3,720 Stryker soldiers back home by Dec. 5.
For many of the returning soldiers, the homecoming was a bit of a déjà vu. Some 380 of the 172nd soldiers came home to Fort Wainwright in July before their unit’s deployment was extended four additional months.
More than 300 of the soldiers rejoined their units in Iraq, this time to conduct combat operations in Baghdad. They had previously been operating in the northern provinces of Iraq, mainly in Anbar, Rawaha and Mosul.
The day before the first of the brigade soldiers returned to Alaska, their fellow 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team members cased their colors in a ceremony Nov. 24 outside the Division Morale Welfare and Recreation complex at Camp Liberty, Iraq. The ceremony marked the official end of combat operations for the unit.
“The Arctic Wolves have accomplished a great deal in the last 16 months: successful partnership and COIN (counter insurgency) success in Northern Iraq, protecting the population and reducing the EJK (extra-judicial killing) violence in our focus areas of Baghdad,” said Col. Mike Shields, the brigade commander, at the ceremony.
Shields acknowledged the losses the 172nd suffered in carrying out its mission. Twenty-six members of the 172nd soldiers died and another 350 soldiers were wounded in action during the past 16 months, said Maj. Michael Blankartz, the brigade public affairs officer.
“It is time for one of the greatest brigades in our Army’s history to case the colors and return home,” Shields said. “We will never forget the sacrifices of our soldiers, our families and our children.”
Staff Sgt. Yvonne Smith, a command group administrative assistant for the brigade, said she was hopeful their presence made a difference.
“Hopefully our presence here brought a lot of organizations together so that we have a sense of what we need to do next, without sacrificing lives of soldiers and Iraqis,” Smith said. “It should be taken as a lesson learned. It’s not the Strykers alone. It’s engaging the people and showing them you are human.”
Blankartz said the Arctic Wolves had five Silver Star Medal recipients and the pack received the Valorous Unit Award from Gen. George C. Casey, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, for its exceptional service.
“For the strength of the pack is the wolf,” Shields said, quoting Rudyard Kipling to close the ceremony. “And the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
The Fairbanks community plans to roll out the red carpet for the entire 172nd pack during a Dec. 12 welcome-home ceremony in Fairbanks at Carlson Center, the city's arena. Two days later, another ceremony will combine a reflagging of the brigade to the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team and change of command and reflaggings and changes of command for all battalions.
Although the 172nds' journey from Baghdad to Kuwait to Alaska came with heart-warming welcomes from family and friends, the soldiers returned to quite a different atmosphere outside.
Alaska has dealt with a deep freeze during the last several weeks, with
unseasonably low temperatures in the minus-20s in Fairbanks and around 0 in
Anchorage. Those conditions were expected to improve as the week progresses.