After a year of helping to guard over 20,000 detainees in a sprawling compound in southern Iraq, newly returned members of Utah National Guard's First Battalion, 145th Artillery Unit were recognized for their service in a Freedom-Salute Ceremony at Abravanel Hall Sunday.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Utah National Guard leaders and the friends and families of soldiers took part in commemorations, award presentations, soldier promotions and a formal ceremony officially recognizing the completion of their deployment, and those who remained behind in support of them.
Huntsman welcomed the troops back and thanked them on behalf of the entire state for completing their mission at the Camp Bucca detention facility. The governor offered this reminder to the unit of approximately 360 soldiers facing their new challenge of re-acclimating to civilian life.
"I want you to remember to use some simple language a little more than you might otherwise," Huntsman said. "Remember the three most powerful words in the English language are I love you ... and I don't want you to forget that."
"When you see your kids, I want you to hug them a little tighter. When you see your spouse, remember that "I love you" means something. And when you see your neighbors and relatives, give them an expression of love as well."
Huntsman recognized the spouses and families of those service members whose separation spanned from June 2007 until the end of this May.
"When our fighting warriors are sent off, someone remains behind," Huntsman said. "That someone has a void to fill in their life ... a tough void to live with for a year. While you have been alone, we've been thinking of you ... the whole state has been thinking of you."
Chaplain (Major) Clay Anstead recounted the grueling schedule and tough conditions faced by the soldiers tasked with the operation of the detention center.
"Soldiers worked 12-hour shifts, typically from 6 to 10 days straight, then have a day off," Anstead said. "Our unit took care of five compounds, with 800 to 1,000 detainees in each of them."
Anstead said the logistics of transport, food, medical care and maintaining a safe environment for both detainees and camp personnel is a huge undertaking.
"This may be the largest detention camp in the history of mankind," Anstead said. "The purpose of this camp is to act like a sieve ... to let the good guys out and keep the bad guys in, which is a very challenging process."
Anstead explained that each detainee's case is heard before a three-member review board that determines whether the circumstances behind their capture warrants continued detention, or release. Each detainee's case is reviewed every six month. Anstead said the reality of having both murderers and innocents together in an environment where you don't know who's who was the real challenge of the mission.
"We had to treat everyone, from a safety aspect, as if they were a threat," Anstead said. "But, do it in a way that would not offend an innocent. I believe we were extremely successful at protecting dignity while also protecting life and limb."
While deployed troops faced their mission challenges in Iraq, Celeste Sellers helped isolated spouses deal with the everyday challenges of all families. Sellers works with the battalion commander as a family readiness leader aiding spouses across Utah, and in five other states, deal with financial woes, communication issues, family deaths and whatever else may come up for families separated by a military deployment.
"In Utah, we're lucky because most families have really good support," Sellers said. "Some don't, and that's who we're here to help ... there's nothing we can't connect people with, in terms of resources."
Sellers said that while a lot can happen during a deployment to create havoc within a family, the hardest part may be the changes that are required upon a soldier's return.
"Coming home is actually harder on our families," Sellers said. "You've both changed, you've been apart for a year ... you're never going back to the old normal. You have to get used to the new normal."
Sellers is well acquainted with what the process is all about. Her husband, 1st Sgt. Dale Sellers, marks his return from Camp Bucca as fourth deployment. Sellers said that some of the most powerful, and helpful, support can come from the communities' of military families.