FORT IRWIN - Returning home after a year of combat in Iraq, 2,200 troops in the renowned
Black Horse Regiment were welcomed back Friday by a tumultuous crowd at this desert military post.
"These brave soldiers earned their spurs in the crucible of combat,'' said Brig Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander of the Army's National
Training Center at Fort Irwin. "It's a very special day for us, and we all celebrate their return.''
Arriving by Black Hawk helicopter, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger thanked the soldiers of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment for a job well done.
"You faced a huge challenge and accomplished your mission with great honor," the governor said. "You have provided the ultimate service for
our country as part of a proud tradition.
"We are grateful to those who made the extreme sacrifice."
Twenty-one soldiers in the regiment were killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were honored at a wreath-laying ceremony
earlier at the post's Black Horse Chapel.
"We will never forget the comrades who have fallen from our ranks," said Capt. David Snyder, a post chaplain. "We ask that there be peace . .
. so no more names will have to be added to monuments like this."
And Col. Peter Bayer, commander of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, said, "We honor these brave warriors who epitomize the best that
America has to offer.
"Our fallen troopers served us well when our nation needed them to step up to the plate. If they could be with us, they would challenge us to
our nation and to be guardians of freedom."
Citing the regimental theme Let's Go! Bayer saluted the Black Horse troopers as the finest in the land, saying, "We fight for right and use
our might to free our fellow man . . . ."
Among those at the chapel ceremony were Army Spc. Bryan Nelson and his wife, Sara, both 21.
"My husband went to Iraq when our daughter Hannah was 6 months old, and while he was gone I stayed with my parents in Wisconsin," Sara said.
"Bryan and I were married at 18 and had to grow up fast."
Combat duty was harrowing, the young soldier said. "An (improvised explosive device) blew up near one of our vehicles, killing the driver. I
had shared a room with him for six months."
Sgt. Armando Lopez, 29, a nine-year Army
veteran just back from Iraq, served on a military-advisory team that helped train Iraqi fighters.
"Sometimes combat duty was intense," he said. "We were outside the wire (the safety zone) to conduct training for the fighters. My own
training at Fort Irwin was very realistic, preparing us for what was to come."
Spc. David Moreno, 29, a medic, spent six months in Iraq providing emergency care for critically wounded members of the regiment.
"A number of severe casualties were brought in including one of my friends who was injured in an explosion," he said. "He is here now."
At Fort Irwin, the Black Horse Regiment has served as the opposition military force in the annual training of 60,000 troops, setting the
standard for Army training in its function as an enemy fighting force.
To prepare soldiers for potential urban combat, the Army created 11 "villages" out of prefabricated material on a remote battleground at the
620,000-acre fort. The villages, home to faux "insurgent forces," are the settings for simulated riots and car bombings.
"I've gone through training here five times since 1984," said Maj. John Clearwater, post spokesman. "The intensity of the battles are seared
into your mind. It's so realistic, it thoroughly prepares you for combat."
In its 105-year history, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment has served in the jungles of the Philippines, Cuba and Mexico, where it took part
in the last classic-mounted cavalry charge in U.S. history.
In 1919, the regiment received its nickname, Black Horse, from local citizens who took heed of the distinctive black horses the troops used.
The troopers of the 11th Cavalry said goodbye to their mounts in 1941.