By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 15, 2008 - Yesterday's change-of-command ceremony at Fort Stewart, Ga., set against the backdrop of near-daily 3rd Infantry Division homecoming ceremonies, marked one of the last milestones for the surge force that's credited with helping to bring about a dramatic turnaround in Iraq. Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch passed command of the "Rock of the Marne" division to Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo as his soldiers continued to return home from their third combat deployment to Iraq.
"It has been the greatest honor of my career to serve it with the 3rd Infantry Division," Lynch said, extending thanks to his troops, their families, and the local communities, retirees and veterans who support them.
"I refuse to say goodbye. I say farewell," Lynch said.
After two years leading the division, he will be promoted to lieutenant general later this week before taking command of the Army's 3rd Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.
"His efforts ensured that this division was ready to fight, and fight it did," Army Gen. Charles Campbell, commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, said of Lynch during the ceremony. "You have been a great division commander, but far more importantly, you have commanded a great division. Congratulations on a remarkable performance and a remarkable division."
Cucolo, who served two previous tours with the 3rd Infantry Division, most recently as a brigade commander, said he relished returning to Fort Stewart. "It's good to be back home," he said as he accepted the division flag. "Today is a humbling dream come true."
The 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, was the first unit to cross the Kuwait-Iraq border in March 2003. The division returned to Iraq two years later for its second deployment. This month, the last contingents of 2nd Brigade Combat Team troops are returning to Fort Stewart, wrapping up the division's most recent 15-month deployment.
The troops represent the last surge troops sent to Iraq to boost security in and around Baghdad to return home. The surge included five Army brigades, two Marine battalions and a Marine expeditionary unit.
More than 240 members of the brigade's advance team marched onto the post's Cottrell Field during a June 26 homecoming ceremony. Their fellow soldiers have followed in a steady stream of flights into Hunter Army Airfield, outside Savannah, Ga.
Yesterday's change of command took place as both Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield buzzed with homecoming ceremonies: One was scheduled today, three tomorrow, one July 17, two July 18, one July 20, three July 22, and two July 24. In addition, a July 20 homecoming ceremony is slated at Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the division's 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, Fort Stewart officials reported.
As the homecomings have continued, the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd BCT security detachment recently conducted the surge force's last operational mission, escorting members of an embedded provincial reconstruction team in Baghdad between two forward operating bases, officials said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Fort Stewart last month to thank recently returned 3rd Infantry Division troops personally for the huge difference they and their fellow surge troops made in Iraq. Mullen credited them with "changing the calculus in Iraq and giving us possibilities that a year ago we didn't have."
The chairman told the soldiers they accomplished "what many people didn't think possible" during their deployment: bringing down violence and giving hope to the Iraqi people.
Lynch noted that when his troops first arrived in Iraq, they were being attacked about 25 times a day. By the time the 3rd Infantry Division headquarters left Iraq, attacks were down to fewer than two a day, he said during a June 29 interview with local media.
During the division's deployment, total attacks decreased 89 percent, indirect-fire attacks stopped, small-arms attacks saw an 88 percent drop, and roadside bomb attacks dipped 79 percent, Lynch said.
Mullen told the soldiers the surge, part of a new strategy in Iraq, represented a dramatic shift in previous ways of doing business with a powerful impact. "You set the stage for potentially succeeding in Iraq, and up until that point, that certainly was in question," he said.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who the Senate confirmed last week to lead U.S. Central Command, has called for a pause before decisions are made about additional troop reductions in Iraq. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and President Bush announced they will support Petraeus' request.
No further troop strength decisions are expected until mid-September at the earliest, after defense leaders review a post-surge assessment military commanders are preparing and make recommendations to the president.