First wave of Fort Wainwright soldiers return from nine-month deployment to the Middle East

Fort Wainwright soldiers return home to Fairbanks after a nine-month deployment to the Middle...
Fort Wainwright soldiers return home to Fairbanks after a nine-month deployment to the Middle East. (Sara Tewksbury/KTVF) (KTVF)
Published: Jun. 1, 2020 at 12:48 PM AKDT
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Approximately 200 Fort Wainwright soldiers returned to Fairbanks on Saturday from a nine-month deployment to the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Around 2,000 soldiers from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team were deployed to Iraq, Syria and Kuwait.

Major Robert Hales, brigade surgeon, says it is wonderful to be home. “I, like a bunch of people, made Alaska my home. [I'm a] State resident, I live in North Pole, I was excited to get back, flying over the mountains, nothing better feeling... you are like ‘I’m finally back home.’ Our flight today was about 20 hours,” said Hales.

He said due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were not able to get off the plane during stops as they normally would.

Hales said what he is looking forward to most is to be able to get out in the woods. “Get into the local community, Fairbanks, North Pole, there’s still a lot of my favorite stuff here, watch the community recover from the COVID restrictions, and just get back to what the whole borough is about,” said Hales.

He said the Iran missile attack in January was the most memorable part of the deployment.

“You always hear about stuff like that, and for it to happen, just watching all those missiles come in, I kind of learned who I was and learned what some of my patients go through... to where I was having to deal with that post-traumatic event and work through the stuff myself and learning to lean on the relationships. I have a great wife, she’s stationed in San Antonio, she’s an Army nurse, but talking to her daily and saying 'this is what I’m going through' and being able to work through that stuff,” said Hales.

He said the attack brought the soldiers closer as a unit. “We all suffered through that eight hours. It was very intense but we started healing right away. We came together very tight, all of us... we started talking more, we started enjoying each other more. Since we all went through that hard time together, we came together very close-knit and it was a bond that you really can’t describe. When I saw my friends and fellow staff officers that morning it was that amount of joy I had... just seeing their faces was incredible. The fact that we didn’t have anyone die, a win, and then just being able to take care of the soldiers afterwards with all the TBI stuff, and actually get down to know them a little bit better, it gave us avenues to be closer as a unit,” said Hales.

Soldiers on this deployment say the experience was unique because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “All of our bases [were] closed down, we didn’t allow anyone in and out without certain passes... so we, for the last two and half [to] three months have just been... you think of what the United States has been doing, but we’ve been doing it at bases -- screening in and out, wearing masks, maintaining social distance... they shut down all the gyms and barbershops,” said Hales.

Staff Sergeant Madeline Johnson, 92-A automated logistics specialist, said she was in Kuwait, and there were some long days during the deployment. “There was days of 18 hours of work, no sleep, no days off, nothing fun to do... and it got even worse with COVID. Everything was closed. The only thing that was open was the DFAC and the PX,” said Johnson.

Johnson says returning home feels very different from her past two deployments due to the pandemic. “You can’t go ahead and see your family right away, there’s a lot more restrictions, you don’t have your free will to do anything,” said Johnson. She says the two-week quarantine just feels like another deployment.

Johnson says she is most looking forward to finishing the quarantine and being able to eat her choice of food again, “eating real food, and not the same food every single day.” Specifically, Johnson is excited to have sushi and Pho again.

Hales said again how happy they are to be back in Fairbanks. “So us going in and doing the quarantine to protect the community and the force... it’s just a continuation of what we’re doing but we look forward to getting to the backside of that and definitely getting back into the community. Especially driving in, that was incredible -- all the immediate responders, the police officers, the firemen, just the families pulling to the side of the road, seeing people in the parking lot waving at us, of just every parking lot, people pulling to the side of the road, the welcome home was incredible,” said Hales.

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