Photo Showcase: Fox Company Homecoming
DENISON, Iowa — Jennie Trucke pushed her way through the crying moms and proud dads and elbowed her way past a dozen barrel-chested Iowa National Guardsmen.
Good manners be darned, for the moment at least.
That was her little sister, Pfc. Alexis Trucke, walking toward her, tears streaming off her face and vaporizing on the bone-dry dirt race track at the Crawford County Fairgrounds.
And Jennie needed to do something she'd been waiting to do since the day Pfc. Trucke deployed last fall, just days after she celebrated her 18th birthday.
Jennie locked her kid sister — the youngest soldier in the Iowa Guard's deployment to Afghanistan — in a bear hug fiercer than two pint-sized young women should be able to produce.
They didn't speak. They rocked back and forth silently, a clenched dance that didn't need any music.
Trucke and the rest of Delta Company of the Iowa Guard's 1-168th Infantry Battalion returned home Wednesday, setting off the usual array of cheers and embraces as more than 130 soldiers reunited with family and friends after a short ceremony. Another ceremony in Red Oak celebrated the return of Fox Company.
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which has more than 2,800 Iowa Guardsmen and about 300 Nebraska Guardsmen, is returning in waves during July and August. For the Iowa Guard, the deployment was the state's largest single deployment since World War II.
Delta Company came home from eastern Afghanistan, where they set up shop in a city so tied to the Taliban that the city leaders often let the insurgents use their living rooms to build roadside bombs.
They returned with their eyes open about the difficulties in Patkia province, said 1st Lt. Justin Schultz of Council Bluffs, but they also returned feeling like they made a difference in and around their Combat Outpost Zormat.
"These Iowans — the hardest working bunch of soldiers I've ever been around," said Schultz, Delta Company's executive officer.
In March, Schultz spearheaded a cash-for-work program that paid residents of Zormat, Afghanistan, the equivalent of $8 for a day's work cleaning up the trash-strewn city of 400,000 people.
Call it cash-for-trash, but it wasn't really about the money or the litter, Schultz said.
Frankly, Zormat is too dirty to actually clean; what the Iowans hoped for — and got — was a better relationship with the local men, women and children.
Case in point: The company had set up a hotline so that regular Afghans could call in with tips about where insurgents were hiding or where they were planting roadside bombs.
After the cash-for-trash cleanup, calls to the hotline skyrocketed, Schultz said, giving the Iowans and the local Afghan government security forces a much better sense of the enemy that melted in and out of the city from nearby Pakistan. That information, in turn, allowed the Iowans and the Afghan police to improve security to the point that they could eventually build several bridges connecting isolated villages in the area.
"I think we were able to get people to believe in their government for once," Schultz said.
Sometimes it was hard to stay that positive, Schultz admitted.
He recounted going into meeting with village elders who he knew were aiding the Taliban, or in fact were insurgent leaders themselves.
After one of these encounters, with a city leader who is also a leader in the Haqqani terrorist network, he memorably told an Omaha World-Herald reporter embedded with Delta Company that "he's the biggest snake we've got. If I could shoot him right now, I would."
The hope, Schultz said Wednesday, is that he and other Iowa Guardsmen convinced the local Afghan leaders in Zormat that they could still have clout even if they cut their ties with the Taliban.
"A lot of it is about power, seeking power, so you have to try to find ways to help them preserve that while getting them over to your side," Schultz said.
Eastern Afghanistan seemed far away Wednesday as the 130 soldiers in Delta Company pulled up in buses to the Crawford County Fairgrounds.
A giant American flag hung behind the racetrack, and more than 1,000 people baked on metal bleachers and then went crazy when the guardsmen marched onto the track in front of them.
The outdoor homecoming ceremony was mercifully brief, with Denison Mayor Dennis Fineran speaking for only 3 minutes as the heat index topped 110 degrees.
"You spent a whole year in about the worst possible place a man could put anybody," Fineran said. "I can't imagine being away from my grandkids and my children for a year at a time like that."
Being apart from her sister and family taught Pfc. Trucke a thing or two about priorities, she said.
She and Jennie Trucke were best friends as children, making mud pies and tormenting their brothers and sharing clothes and opinions.
But they fought a lot as teenagers, ran with different crowds at school, slowly drifted apart.
That began to change when Pfc. Trucke went to Afghanistan. She and Jennie talked by phone, email or Facebook almost everyday.
On Wednesday, after she stopped hugging her sister, Pfc. Trucke said she was going to try to remember how great she has it in western Iowa.
The water is clean here. The food is edible. Her cell phone works.
And Jennie is here.
"I've learned how important being close to your family is," said Trucke, who turns 19 on Saturday. "Friends will always be there. Family is more important."
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