January 18, 2010 - Shortly before noon on a brisk Monday (Jan. 18) morning, more than 280 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers arrived at Volk Field to the cheers and embraces of family and friends, bringing the year-long journey of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team - from Wisconsin to Texas to Iraq and back to Wisconsin again - almost to a close. Approximately 20 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers remained behind to take care of administrative and logistical details regarding the 32nd Brigade's departure from the Central Command theater of operations. They are expected to arrive in Wisconsin later this week. Still, as of Monday, most of the 3,200 Soldiers who had deployed with the 32nd Brigade had safely returned to Wisconsin.
"It feels great," said Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Hansen, 32nd Brigade Command Sgt. Major. "It's a relief - like a big weight's been lifted."
The first wave of Soldiers who deployed with the 32nd Brigade returned to Wisconsin Jan. 5, but the majority of Soldiers returned on 11 flights between Jan. 11 and Jan. 18.
Col. Steven Bensend, commander of the 32nd Brigade, said that senior leaders in Iraq - including Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq - have made numerous positive comments about Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers.
"Not one time did I ever have any top leaders asking me why my brigade did this or did that," Bensend said. "They said they were impressed, without exception. That's indicative of the leadership of these [Soldiers].
"From the sergeants, the staff sergeants, the company commanders, the focus was on getting the job done," he continued. "We have a culture in the brigade on leadership, on getting things done."
The 32nd Brigade, augmented by six other Wisconsin Army National Guard units, was ordered to active duty Feb. 1, 2009 and deployed to Iraq in April and May following two months of training at Fort Bliss, Texas.
During training and while in Iraq, the brigade was organized into 27 company-sized units. Rather than operating as a brigade, the 32nd was tasked with a variety of missions throughout Iraq.
"Some Soldiers left the wire every day," Bensend said. "Some never left the FOB [forward operating base]. Each job was equally important."
These missions included forward operating base administration, base defense, area security, quick reaction forces, freedom of movement security support, detainee guard force operations at theater internment facilities, closing the largest internment facility in Iraq, transferring detainees, operating an academy to train Iraqi corrections officers, inspecting detention facilities, securing and administering the International Zone in Baghdad, and turning over U.S.-controlled properties back the government of Iraq. The brigade's Soldiers operated around the clock, most of them working at least 12 hours a day - day after day, week after week, for eight full months in Iraq.
Capt. Daniel Hendershot, commander of Battery B, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery - one of the final units to return to Wisconsin - thanked the families of his Soldiers.
"You were just as much a part of the deployment while we were overseas as we were," he said. Brig. Gen. Don Dunbar, the adjutant general of Wisconsin, also recognized the families who supported their Soldiers during their year-long deployment.
"Soldiers, how great is it to be home?" he asked, drawing a chorus of "Hooah" from the audience. "Families, how great is it to have your Soldiers home?" he continued, prompting a jubilant cheer from family members that dwarfed the Soldiers' response.
Bensend and other Wisconsin National Guard senior leaders - including Dunbar; Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard; and Command Sgt. Major George Stopper, state command sergeant major - cautioned Soldiers that their mission was not quite over. Stopper urged Soldiers to pay attention to their demobilization briefings.
"You need to be able to use all those benefits you are eligible for," he said.
Bensend said the next step for the 32nd Brigade is to complete demobilization, be recognized for their deployment at an upcoming Freedom Salute ceremony, complete the reintegration process, and finally to "reset" the brigade - part of a three-stage process that prepares the brigade for its next mission. He stressed that the 32nd has not been identified for another deployment.
"We're just looking at getting the Soldiers back with their units and ease them back into a training cycle," he said.