FAIRBANKS - Behind the welcome home banners, this military town is still steamed over the way the Defense Department treated its Fort Wainwright 172nd Stryker Brigade soldiers, especially when they were ordered to stay longer in Iraq and head to the hot zone of Baghdad.
In this Alaska city, soldiers are considered family.
"There is such a thing as inhumane treatment. Heading them back was inhumane treatment," said Melba Worledge, 69, nursing a beer Tuesday inside the Comet Club, where a welcome home banner hung outside next to a faded red, white and blue ribbon, likely left over from when the soldiers were expected to begin returning last summer.
The nearly 3,800-strong brigade was due home in July when the Defense Department ordered the soldiers from Mosul to Baghdad to help quell violence in the Iraqi capital for four more months. Some members were already home and had to return to Iraq.
Seven brigade soldiers died during the extension, following the deaths of 19 brigade soldiers during the original deployment.
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Their deployment finally over, the troops have been coming home in waves during the past two weeks.
With the last large group of Strykers returning to Fort Wainwright in just a few hours Tuesday evening, Worledge was thinking about the ones that didn't make it.
There would be some faces missing at the Comet Club, she said.
"A lot of them came in here. It is a shame," Worledge said.
The return of the Strykers is hard on all the families that had loved ones killed, but harder still on those that lost loved ones during the four-month extension.
Henry Foyteck, 81, said the death of his grandson, Kraig Foyteck of LaPorte, Ind., is very tough to take. Sgt. Kraig Foyteck, 26, died in Baghdad on Oct. 30.
Within hours of coming home from the hospital, he cradled that boy in the crook of his arm, he said.
Why, the boy practically grew up on that arm, he said.
"My daughter came home from the hospital and he sat on my left arm. My daughter worked nights and we took care of the kid at night," Foyteck said. "You miss somebody like that when you have 26 years with them."
"They already had their year over there," said the World War II soldier who served in the Pacific. "He was scheduled to leave and they extended his tour four months and he ended up giving his life on Oct. 30. I think this whole thing is wrong."
The last large group of 182 soldiers returned to Fort Wainwright on Tuesday. Only a small Stryker crew remains in Iraq to pack up gear.
"We will never forget our fallen comrades," said Col. Michael Shields, the brigade commander who joined the families Tuesday night to welcome the soldiers home. "We will never forget them and the price they paid for our freedom."
Memories - some good and others bad - will remain for a long time in Fairbanks about the deployment of Wainwright's Strykers. For many, their bitterness is focused on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned in November.
When the Stryker families asked Rumsfeld during an appearance in Fairbanks in August how much longer their loved ones would serve in Iraq, he wouldn't say and refused to commit that they would be home by Christmas.
Borough Assemblyman Hank Bartos, a retired lieutenant colonel and Vietnam War pilot, was so fed up by Rumsfeld's handling of the war that he helped sponsor a resolution calling for his resignation.
It fell one vote short of passing in October, shortly before Rumsfeld did resign.
"It was a tremendous heartache," Bartos said, of the decision to extend the Strykers. "Now that it is over, everyone is glad it is over. That erases a lot of the hard feelings that were created by the extension."
Some hard feelings won't be going away easily.
Miriam Latimer, the 22-year-old sister of Spc. Aaron Latimer of Ennis, Texas, who died on May 9 at age 26, said her brother was proud to serve in the 172nd Stryker Brigade, but she thinks the Army has to rethink how it treats its soldiers.
"They served their country. It was really cruel," Latimer said of the extension. "They shouldn't have had to be asked to go back to Baghdad when they served their country."
She's thankful the others made it back alive.
When the soldiers headed to Iraq in 2005, it was the largest combat deployment of Alaska soldiers since the Vietnam War. The impact to Fairbanks was instantly obvious. There were empty seats in classrooms, plenty of room at restaurants and shorter lines at the Wal-Mart.
"Suddenly, they were gone," said Glen "Glenner" Anderson, who has a four-hour daily radio show on KXLR in Fairbanks. "It showed the entire city of Fairbanks just how vital a part of the community they were."
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