ON BOARD A C-17 (HawaiiNewsNow) – On Sunday, we were on-board a C-17 as it returned to Hawaii with soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division headquarters. They had the honor of being the last U.S. division headquarters out of Iraq. The draw down ended with a final casing of the colors ceremony, and when their deployment was over, many soldiers described it as emotional and bittersweet.
52 tired soldiers found space to sleep wherever they could on the C-17 bound for home. Just hours beforehand, their assignment finished with a historic ceremony - which Captain Daniel Hwang documented on his camera.
"Our leadership cased the colors and before we knew it, everybody was antsy to get on the C-17, and we lifted off and headed out so, it happened in a matter of 5 to10 minutes, but it's definitely a moment that will be embedded in my memory forever," says Hwang.
"Casing the colors" involves rolling up the unit's flag and the American flag when a deployment ends. After nearly nine years of war, this one was small and humble. No showboating allowed.
"It was intended to be a quiet, professional, understated ceremony and … just casing the colors and get on the plane," explains the 25th I-D commander, Bernard Champoux. "That's what we wanted the last visual piece to be. We didn't come to occupy it. We came to do our job, and our job was done."
What surprised us most was how emotional this was for the Tropic Lightning troops. Of course, they were happy and excited to be heading home, but over time, they had invested a lot - and many had mixed feelings about the departure.
LTC Robert Jean says, "I've spent a lot of time in Iraq, and I've seen how it's changed over the last eight-and-a-half years, and my heart's there a lot because I've put a lot of time, effort, and some blood into it. So, it's one of those things where, it's hard to let go, but I'm ready to let go."
About 25,000 soldiers from the 25th I-D served in the Iraq war. 80 were killed in action, and the vast majority of these troops know at least one person who died. That may be one of the reasons why it's not so simple to say goodbye.