Archive for Wednesday, April 23, 2008

After Iraq surge, Fort Riley brigade returning home

A soldier salutes a memorial to Cpl. William O'Brien during a service at Fort Riley, on March 26. O'Brien was killed while on patrol in Iraq March 15, 2008, as part of the troop surge.

A soldier salutes a memorial to Cpl. William O'Brien during a service at Fort Riley, on March 26. O'Brien was killed while on patrol in Iraq March 15, 2008, as part of the troop surge.

April 23, 2008

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— The news wasn't good, and it was difficult to avoid. Jennifer Crotts tried to block it out, but checking her e-mail took her to news pages. Frequently, they would report another attack and more dead soldiers.

Her husband is an infantry sergeant returning from Iraq this month. Crotts has lived 15 tense months in Kansas, needing to check her e-mail daily, worried that his messages would stop coming.

"You click on it because you want to know. You have a constant worry on your mind until you talk to him again," she said.

Her husband, Christopher, lived in an outpost in Baghdad in the Rashid neighborhood. The area had seen little in the way of U.S. presence before the soldiers arrived early in 2007.

Terrorists, insurgents and run-of-the-mill street thugs were in control. The 3,400 soldiers of the 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division were coming to try to restore order.

The soldiers knew months beforehand that they would be heading to Iraq. The timing of the deployment made them part of the 30,000-troop surge designed to quell an uptick in violence. U.S. officials hoped to set conditions for the Iraqi government to begin making reforms.

Though the Army is bringing home thousands of surge soldiers, troop levels will remain above 140,000 indefinitely. Further reductions have been halted as Gen. David Petraeus waits to see whether security gains hold. Most of the brigade completed its return home this week, with about 150 remaining until next month.

Fort Riley still will have about 4,100 soldiers deployed, with another brigade trained and awaiting deployment orders, likely to come yet this year.

Spouses who were left behind by the 4th Brigade knew they faced trying times.

"You don't want to think about why you are separated. But they were doing something good that other people were respecting," said Chrissy Pribyla, wife of Capt. Eric Pribyla, a company commander. "They weren't just sitting over there."

The brigade restored basic services such as water and sewers, while schools and businesses reopened. Soldiers saw a marked decline in attacks by insurgents as rival factions sought reconciliation.

Thirty-eight soldiers from the brigade died, with hundreds more wounded. News of casualties didn't end with confirmation the brigade was coming home.

'He was a good soldier'

In late March, the "Black Lions," the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, held a memorial service for Cpl. William O'Brien, killed by small-arms fire in Baghdad.

Twelve Black Lions died on deployment. O'Brien was killed two weeks shy of his 28th birthday.

Pribyla, whose husband was O'Brien's commander, said attending memorial services was the hardest part of the past 15 months. Chrissy and Eric Pribyla have a 3-year-old daughter, Anna, and another daughter due this summer.

She got pregnant when her husband was on rest and recuperation leave from the war.

"This is our third deployment and it seems to be the roughest," she said. "The end result is that it has made a huge difference over there."

Cpl. Dustin Fritschel knew O'Brien since boot camp. He delivered O'Brien's eulogy, still in shock over the death.

The two went on missions together in Iraq last year until mortar shrapnel ripped through Fritschel's back and internal organs. Fritschel has had multiple surgeries.

Fritschel remembers O'Brien as being dedicated to physical training.

"He was real big into being a soldier," said Fritschel, who's still recovering from his wounds. "He was a good soldier."

Fritschel and Capt. Sean McCoy, part of the Black Lions' rear detachment, said O'Brien's death tempered the excitement that families were experiencing.

"It's still real and it's going to continue. We need to keep from getting complacent back here," McCoy said. "I think a lot of them are more endeared to the realities of having a soldier in the family. It's a tough learning curve for a lot of young spouses, but they've come a long way and they've done a great job adapting to the rigors of Army life."

Crotts, who has been raising her son, Nathan, alone since his birth in August, said another set of hands will be welcome.

"Life is just going to be so much better," Crotts said. "I'll be a better mother to Nathan. I never want to be a single mother again."

Searching for support

Celeste Snyder leaned on her three sons for support while her husband, Staff Sgt. Brett Snyder, was gone. The children range in age from 17 to 6, with the oldest soon heading to college.

It was Brett Snyder's first deployment, and the hardest part for her wasn't the distance necessarily, but the fickle Kansas weather.

A winter storm knocked power out for several days. She had decided to stay with family at Fort Hood, Texas, when McCoy called and said barracks were being opened to families. She stayed in Kansas.

"I am forever grateful for them taking care of us," said Celeste Snyder, who found a job during the deployment helping spouses find employment. "It's been a trying year. I've learned a lot about myself."

The soldiers also return to a changed Fort Riley. In the past year, millions have been spent on construction of barracks, motor pools and support buildings, part of more than $1 billion in construction related to the Big Red One division returning from Germany.

Snyder's excited. Her husband will be seeing a new house for the first time. She bought new clothes for him and a few other things. His favorite meals soon will be cooking.

"He deserves it. He's thinking of me asking, 'What do you want to do?' We've been through tough things," Snyder said. "When he comes home, I just want to take care of him."

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