El Paso Hosts Texas-Sized Homecoming Parade

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

EL PASO, Texas, Feb. 28, 2008 - The 1st Cavalry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team may be a relative newcomer here, but more than 3,000 of the unit's soldiers got a Texas-sized hometown heroes' welcome yesterday as the city hosted a homecoming parade to honor them for their service in Iraq.

Army Col. Stephen M. Twitty, the brigade commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Stephan Frennier led the Fort Bliss troops during the celebratory march through the streets of downtown El Paso.

Joining them were the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade's 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery, also recently returned from Southwest Asia. The Patriot missile unit spent 17 months in the region providing air defense.

Mayor John Cook came up with the idea of welcoming the returning troops with what's thought to be the biggest parade yet for returning Iraq war veterans. A Vietnam veteran, Cook said he remembers returning from home in 1970, only to have protesters pelt the bus he and his fellow soldiers were traveling in with eggs.

"I just wanted to do a better job," Cook said. "The entire El Paso community has really stepped up to the plate, and people have said that the 4-1 Cavalry is symbolic of all the soldiers that have served."

El Paso turned out in force. Dozens of "Welcome Home Heroes" parade banners lined the parade route, which was packed with spectators. Many dressed in red, white and blue and waved flags distributed by Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops.

Young mothers pushed strollers adorned with patriotic balloons. Among them was Diana Garcia, with her 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter at her side, who came to pay tribute to her husband, Spc. Rolando Garcia from the 27th Brigade Support Battalion. "This is exciting! It's so moving! I love it how everyone is showing appreciation!" she exclaimed.

School groups hoisted posters expressing thanks. Workers stood outside their office buildings, waving to the troops and calling out thanks as they marched by.

Veterans set up chairs along the sidewalks, caps showing their own military affiliations shading their eyes from the bright Texas sunshine. "I can't think of a better way of honoring our troops," said retired Army Maj. Donald Clark. "I came here to see them and let them know they're appreciated."

Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Charles Tymony said he got no expression of thanks when he returned by ship from war in Korea or by plane from two tours in Vietnam. "So I'm here because I'm supporting the troops in this war, and I want them to know I'm proud of them," he said.

Twitty served as point man for the procession, walking alone in his black cavalry Stetson hat and golden spurs. Next came the color guard and the 62nd Army Band that had greeted the returning cavalry troops as their incoming flights touched down at Fort Bliss' Biggs Army Airfield in December.

Three M1083 medium tactical vehicles followed, loaded with wounded troops from the Fort Bliss Warrior Transition Unit.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Mike Martinez, the transition unit's noncommissioned officer in charge and an El Paso native, said he's seen his city express its patriotism in the past, but never to the degree shown yesterday.

"In my whole career, I never thought I'd be in a parade like this," he said. "This is a real honor for me, and it means even more because it's my hometown. This is a small town giving a lot back and showing its appreciation."

The parade's festive tone turned solemn as 31 riderless horses came into view, empty boots reversed in the stirrups in tribute to the 31 4-1 Cavalry soldiers lost in Iraq. Each horse, provided by the El Paso County Sheriff's Posse, was draped with a patriotic saddle blanket and the name of a fallen soldier.

The procession stopped as it approached the reviewing stand in the city's San Jacinto Plaza, and a narrator explained the symbolism of the horses to the crowd. As the narrator read each lost soldier's name aloud, the soldier who escorted the horse along the parade route stepped forward.

Wesley Bushnell, of Jasper, Ark., joined Spc. Scott Schamburg in walking alongside the horse honoring his son, Sgt. William Bushnell. The 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, soldier died in combat April 21 when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle during operations in Baghdad.

"It's a real honor for me to be here and do this as they honor my son," Wesley Bushnell said.

Tears welled up in Schamburg's eyes as he expressed thanks for the opportunity to honor his best friend's memory. "This is really hard, but I'm glad Wesley and I can be here to do this for him," he said. "We all believe he's here with us."

Peggy Bushnell said she and her husband wanted to participate, to honor not only their son, but also the soldiers he served with in combat. "We're proud of them all and wanted to extend that to the ones who came home safely," she said.

After the last fallen soldier's name was read, the 4-1 Cavalry "Long Knife" Brigade Combat Team resumed its march through the city, one battalion at a time. Those wounded during the deployment marched toward the front of their formations, their Purple Heart medals dangling from their Army combat uniforms.

Throughout the procession, the soldiers' faces beamed with pride as they took in the show of appreciation all around them.

"It feels good to come home to a parade, because it lets you know there are people out there who know what you went through and know the sacrifices that you have made and want to thank you for it," Twitty said. "This shows that the people of El Paso care about us and that they understand our sacrifices and want to honor us for the great work that we have done."

Twitty said the parade is an extension of the way the El Paso community has reached out to his brigade from the day it arrived at Fort Bliss. The mayor and other city officials and groups quickly contacted him to see how they could support the first maneuver unit to serve at Fort Bliss since the 1990s. During the brigade's deployment, local citizens and groups sent the troops letters and care packages, and some attended memorial services for fallen troops.

"This is a great town. The people here are great. You have people who are not for the war and some who are for the war, but all of them are for the soldier," Twitty said. "I've been in the Army going on 23 years and moved 14 times, and I have never in my military career seen a city embrace its military personnel like El Paso has."

Twitty conceded that he would march with a lump in his throat contemplating all his brigade had been through during the last two and a half years. He stood up the 4-1 Cavalry at Fort Bliss in October 2005 with close to nothing -- no equipment, no weapons, no computers, no barracks. The unit scrambled to get mission-ready and deployed almost exactly a year after its formation for a 15-month tour in Iraq.

Initially bound for Ramadi, the brigade learned while still in Kuwait that it would serve in Iraq's northwestern Ninevah province, including Mosul. One battalion, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, was split off from the brigade and sent to Baghdad as part of the troop surge there.

Next week, the brigade will case its colors and be reflagged as 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, ending the 4-1 Cavalry's short, but significant, legacy.

As he prepared for the welcoming parade, Twitty said, knowing that the 4-1 Cavalry's short history is about to end made El Paso's outpouring of support even more significant to him and his soldiers.

"It's going to be awfully special, because this is the last hooray for the 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. This is it," he said. "So as I am walking down the street, that's the last time Long Knife 6 (the Long Knife Brigade commander's call sign) and the Long Knife Brigade will really conduct a mission. And what a great way to go out!"

The parade came one day after Vice President Richard B. Cheney visited Fort Hood, Texas, where the 1st Cavalry Division headquarters and the rest of the division is based, to thank the troops for their service in Iraq.

The vice president told 1st Cavalry Division soldiers Feb. 26 that their performance during their 15-month deployment was true to form in the division's storied history.

"The men and women of the 'First Team' are the kind of men and women we send to get that job done," he said. "Time and time again, over many decades, this country counted on the First Team to slug it out against freedom's enemies."

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