Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Jack Markell, plus more than 1,800 family members, welcomed home the soldiers of the Delaware National Guard's 261st Signal Brigade.


    “Brigade dismissed.”

    With those words, the 101 soldiers of the 261st Signal Brigade returned to their families in a moving ceremony Sept. 30 on Legislative Mall, Dover.

    Dressed in their battle uniforms, the men and women of Delaware’s National Guard ended a year of active duty, 10 months of which were spent in and around Baghdad.

    The ceremony, which included remarks by their commander-in-chief, Gov. Jack Markell, and Vice President Joe Biden, whose son was among the returning soldiers, harkened back to Colonial times, when citizen soldiers were mustered out of the Continental Army following the American Revolution.

    Approximately 1,800 people, who, because of Biden’s presence, entered the Mall under the watchful eye of Secret Service agents, welcomed the soldiers home.

    For Alyssa Boyer of Frederica, wife of Capt. Linden Boyer III, it was a year spent trying to be both mother and father to the couple’s three girls.

    “I had no extra help getting the kids to soccer or gymnastics, I had to it all,” she said. “But we had great support from our family support network.

    “We stayed busy, though. We were always on the go,” she said.

    Like many families of the 261st, which managed communications throughout all of Iraq, the Boyers kept in touch via the Internet with webcam conversations and emails.

    “That really helped a lot, especially with our 2-year-old, Katie,” she said. “Because of that, she knows who her daddy is.”

    Tamara Lang, wife of Dover’s Sgt. 1st Class Larry Lang, said that in retrospect the year her husband was gone went by quickly.

    “But when it was actually happening, it didn’t seem to be going that fast,” she said. “It definitely was a difficult year. We had to learn to do a lot of things that we didn’t usually have to do.”

    But any difficulties of the past year quickly faded as the troops, led by their commander, Brig. Gen. Scott Chambers, marched up William Penn Street, passing under an American flag suspended between two Dover city fire trucks. The solders entered Legislative Mall to the accompaniment of a police honor guard and the music of bagpipes, passing between cheering and crying family members. One or two broke even bent the rules of military decorum slightly to smile or reach out to touch a loved one.

    Because of limited time he had available — Biden had to be back in Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama regarding Afghanistan policy — the vice president met privately with the soldiers before they came onto the Mall.

    He gave two thumbs-up as he was introduced and spoke briefly, recounting his now 14 trips to the war zone. As Obama’s point man on Iraqi policy, Biden said he was able to witness first-hand how Delaware’s soldiers functioned under pressure. He also noted with pride how theater commanders often went out of their way to mention the 261st’s work.

    “Everyone in the theater knew, that because of your professionalism, that war and that peace that’s being sought, was able to be pursued and be won,” Biden said. “Without this unit, literally, operations in all of Iraq would be paralyzed.”

    “You stood strong, you stood together, you stood proudly, and you’re home, an even more cohesive unit than when you left,” the vice president added.

    Maj. Gen. Francis Vavala, commander of the state National Guard, spoke with obvious pride about soldiers he called “America’s finest.”

    “Welcome home 261st!” he said, noting how the soldiers had “answered their nation’s call” just as other Delawareans have done for more than 200 years. The brigade, he noted, had achieved many firsts, “and all of us Delawareans take pride in being first.”

    One of those firsts was Chambers’ deployment as the first general officer from Delaware to serve in a war zone since World War II.

    Seeing how the soldiers worked in Iraq was one of his proudest moments, Vavala said, adding, “You did Delaware proud.”

    The 261st earned almost 130 individual decorations, the U.S. Army’s Superior Unit Award the Department of Defense Meritorious Unit Citation and now is entitled to display the Operation Iraqi Freedom battle streamer on the brigade’s flag.

    The ceremony ended with Chambers ordering his deputy, Col. David Passwaters III, to release the soldiers, who spent the 42-minute ceremony waiting patiently behind him.

    A loud cheer went up from the crowd as the troops dispersed to join their families.

    Finally reunited with his wife and children, Maj. Franklin C. Blackmon Jr. said that other than his family, he had missed what he called “the small conveniences of life” while deployed.

    “There’s nothing like getting up off your couch and just going to the kitchen to get a bite to eat,” he said with a grin.

    “And green,” Blackmon added. “It’s just nice to see leaves and trees and grass.”

    But Blackmon conceded he would miss one thing in particular: Army food.

    “The chow halls,” he said. “They had everything. They really fed us well.”

    On the other hand, Sgt. 1st Class David M. Niday of Newark, who was promoted while overseas, laughed as he said there was “nothing” about Iraq he would miss.

    “I’m just glad we had the opportunity to do this mission,” he said. “I can see the Iraqis being able to control their own country with our soldiers being able to come home.”

    Warrant Officer 3 John Dill also said there wasn’t anything he’d miss about being in Iraq, but did admit he enjoyed helping young Iraqi girls and boys learn the tenets of America’s Scouting program.

    “The kids just love you,” he said, “they would hug you and kiss you.

    “It shows that kids are kids no matter where you are. They all were willing to learn.”

    The Iraqi soldiers whose communications skills he helped hone also seemed earger to take advantage of the Americans’ knowledge, Dill added.

    “They were pleased we were there teaching them what they wanted to know,” he said. “They were willing to learn and to show respect.”

    Of his thoughts on returning to his family after a year’s absence, Dill simply said, “It’s great to be back home.

    “You don’t know what you’re missing until you go away.”

Decorations earned by members of the 261st Signal Brigade:

45 — Bronze Star Medal
31 — Meritorious Service Medal
36 — Army Commendation Medal
11 — Army Achievement Medal
6 — Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal

30 — Individuals promoted during the deployment
3 — Children born while their fathers were overseas

  Email News Editor Jeff Brown at jeff.brown@doverpost.com.