Fort Gordon welcomes back nearly 300 troops

After serving in Iraq for 11 months, Spc. Robert Welsh's first mission at home would likely be the most relaxing thing he's done in a year -- playing with his 3-month-old twins Robert and Lily.

He said he felt "blessed" to meet his two children and reunite with his wife, Melissa, after ending his first deployment.

"It's been way too long," said Welsh, one of the 35th Signal Brigade soldiers who returned Wednesday. "It's going to be a lot different. It's going to be a lot of change, but it's well overdue."

Nearly 700 people gathered at Fort Gordon's gymnasium for the long-awaited return of about 300 unit members of the 35th Signal Brigade and the 67th Signal Battalion, which provided tactical communications at 70 sites in Iraq. Another 243 of the post's largest detachment will return today.

As the soldiers marched into the gymnasium, hundreds shouted, whistled and held up signs welcoming home "daddy" and declaring their love for the service people.

Willie and Davette Smith of Atlanta said standing in the heat Wednesday for their daughter Pvt. Jaszmine Smith was well worth any discomfort as they celebrated her safe return and her 20th birthday.

"It's good to see she finally made it home," Willie Smith said.

Staff Sgt. Jasmine Valdez said she was amazed at how much her two girls, Adrianna, 4, and Tatiana, 2, had grown as she held them in her arms with tears in her eyes.

Lt. Col. Peter Tragakis said he is proud of what his unit accomplished in Iraq. All but one soldier -- Spc. Ross Vogel -- will return from the mission. The Pennsylvania native died in a noncombat-related incident in September.

"Our thoughts and prayers are still with his family," Tragakis said. "The soldiers did a great job at their mission."

This was the second time the brigade headquarters has been to Iraq, and the unit is not projected to deploy for at least another 18 months, Tragakis said.

Melissa Welsh said raising their twins on her own the past three months was tough, but she understands the importance of what her husband does.

"It's difficult, but you know what he has to do," she said. "You just stay strong knowing that he will be home."