Staff Sgt. Mark Thomas spent a couple of years avoiding a memorial wall at Joint Base Lewis-McChord dedicated to the soldiers his Stryker brigade lost on its 2004-05 deployment to Iraq. The wounds were too fresh for him.
These days, he’s a regular at the monument. He’s also deepening his relationships with the troops from what was his first combat tour.
This weekend, hundreds of them are convening in the South Sound for a reunion commemorating the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division’s first year in Iraq.
“What we went through was pretty damn tough, and this is part of the healing,” said Thomas, 41, of Lacey.
This weekend’s events for the 1-25 are special in a number of ways for veterans of a combat tour that revealed how challenging the war in Iraq would become. It lost 44 soldiers over a year that included the high point of Iraqi national elections and the low point of a dining hall bombing that claimed the lives of 22 people at one of the brigade’s forward bases.
“The stresses of that time are long, enduring and make a serious mark on your psyche,” said retired Maj. Scott Whitman of Tacoma, who served on the brigade staff in Iraq. “You know that only those who went through that with you could understand.”
His former brigade commander, then-Col. Robert Brown, now is the senior Army officer at Lewis-McChord as a three-star general leading I Corps.
Brown often talks about leading the brigade, and he pays tribute to soldiers who did not come home alive. He has said he stayed especially close with soldiers from that tour, possibly because it was the first time most of them had seen combat.
He talked about hosting a reunion for years, and turned to former sergeants major to make it happen.
“We owe this, I feel, to the families of the fallen, and we owe this to the soldiers we lost,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Mercado, 52, of Lakewood.
The brigade was the second of four Stryker brigades formed at Lewis-McChord over the last decade and the only one no longer stationed there. The Army moved it and its soldiers to Germany after the Iraq tour and renamed it.
In that sense, the reunion is a homecoming, too.
“We don’t have a home, but this is the last place that everybody was together,” said Norma Melo, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Julian Melo, was killed in the Dec. 21, 2004, mess hall attack.
Mercado said the weekend events will honor the memories of former 1-25 soldiers who died in combat as well as men and women who have passed away in the years since their deployment.
Thomas’ wife, Leslie, said that gesture means a lot to her because it shows that “no matter where you go, you’re still one of us.”
She marks the years since that deployment in the growth of her daughter, Katelyn, who was born two months after Thomas left for Iraq and six days after the mess hall bombing. She’s still close with the Army families who helped her get through the year.
“Every time I look at (Katelyn) I think, ‘Wow, kid, it really has been that long.’ ”