Troops return from Iraq, welcomed by Crusaders

It could have been a football game. Cheering, screaming fans packed the stands. Crusader football players filed into the stadium.

The people in the stands, however, were not cheering for a sports team, and the athletes did not come to play. They came to give thanks.

On Feb. 11, about 80 UMHB sports players, coaches, athletic staff, cheerleaders and other well-wishers journeyed to Fort Hood in Killeen to help welcome home the 4th Infantry Division from its 15-month tour in Iraq.

Head football coach Pete Fredenburg helped organize the trip as a gesture of respect and gratitude for the 4th ID’s service overseas.

Photo by John Evans, The Bells

“I want our guys to see what it means to serve our country,” he said. “We are proud of what Maj. Gen. (Jeffrey) Hammond and his soldiers have accomplished.”

Two years earlier, Hammond, the division’s commander, led a devotional for the Crusader football team, and the players were eager to welcome him and his soldiers back.

“It’s just an honor,” said UMHB running back Peyton Price. “Back when Hammond took the time to come see us, he brought two soldiers who explained how they had chosen that path, that they didn’t have the option to play football. Now we get to welcome these soldiers, who have been fighting for us, back from Iraq.”

Arriving half an hour before the official ceremony, the group was ushered into a large tent filled with soldiers’ families awaiting the return of their loved ones.

Photo by John Evans, The Bells

Sergeants handed out fliers offering tips to ease the families’ transition while a video screen showed the soldiers disembarking military transport planes at nearby Robert Gray Army Airfield.

As toddlers in tiny Army uniforms munched on free Bush’s Chicken, senior accounting and management major and Zimbabwe citizen,Tatenda Tavaziva, appreciated the gravity of the situation.

“I’m not even American, and I understand the significance of this,” he said. “I think there is a huge significance in someone leaving the home they know to fight for their country, to defend the rights of their country. That is huge for me, and I am willing to support these soldiers and say thank you.”

Around 11:30, the crowd assembled at a small outdoor arena to the sound of rock music and the whir of Apache attack helicopters flying low over the field.

The crowd erupted into cheers as a line of white buses pulled up to the curb and the soldiers disembarked. Marching in formation to the center of the arena, several could not hold back their smiles as they stood at attention.

Photo by John Evans, The Bells

Hammond delivered a brief speech thanking the families and central Texas for their support and remembering the 94 soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division who perished in battle.

When he concluded, the troops were released to their families in what soon became a pandemonium of hugging, crying, kissing and hand-shaking. Fathers held their babies for the first time. Husbands and wives, now reunited, embraced in tears.

“It’s hard to describe the emotions you feel,” student football coach Marcos Garcia said. “I saw one soldier who held his son for the first time, and he was crying. It really makes you appreciate how much they’ve done for this country.”

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