Just a few weeks ago, Capt. Brad Velotta was kicking in doors in the most dangerous city in the world. Now he's kicking back with his wife, Jodi, who can hardly believe he's home from Baghdad at last. "He is my buddy, my pal and the love of my life," she gushed in an e-mail. "I never once second-guessed that. This deployment was tough, but it made us stronger."
The Stryker Brigade's tour of duty, chronicled in a series on NEWSWEEK.com, did not end with overwhelming success. There have been badly strained marriages, struggles with alcoholism and therapy sessions for troubled kids. Some, like Cpl. Alexander Jordan, didn't come home at all; he was killed by a sniper in September. The 172nd Stryker Brigade "had the toughest challenge of any unit in Iraq," says U.S. Army Secretary Francis Harvey. Brigade Commander Michael Shields praised the 172nd for coping with the 450-day deployment in a way that was "legend." Despite its brutal tour, the 172nd had one of the highest re-enlistment rates in the Army.
Now the 172nd is no more. Two weeks after its return last month, the unit was "reflagged" as the First Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, still based out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Many who served in the Battle of Baghdad are heading for other duty stations. "The 172nd was something special," says Spc. Shawn Mott. "You become like family," adds Staff Sgt. Duane Leventry. Velotta, who commanded Blackhawk Company in the 4-23 infantry battalion, will teach commanders at Fort Benning, Ga. He worries about what his comrades-in-arms left behind in Iraq. "They want it to work, they want something good to come of it," he says. "They put their hearts into it."
In all, the 172nd lost 26 soldiers in Iraq. The dead were honored at a ceremony in Fairbanks on Dec. 12. "These soldiers were someone's best friend, leader, son, brother, fiancé, husband and dad," said Shields. "Several of them left children that will never know their father." But all are remembered.