HINESVILLE, Ga. -- Fort Stewart soldiers whose assault on Baghdad toppled Saddam Hussein's regime applauded his capture as the completion of a mission that remained a loose end when they left Iraq.
"I'm happy, relieved, just excited that this part of it's finally over," Pfc. Jacob Schuett, a vehicle mechanic in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division who spent six months in Iraq before returning in August, said Sunday.
The 3rd Infantry, based at Fort Stewart with units at Fort Benning near Columbus, deployed 16,500 troops to the war. Its tanks and troops rumbled into Baghdad and captured Saddam International Airport, key moments in the dictator's fall from power.
But Saddam himself remained a fugitive when the division returned home at the end of the summer. Its soldiers learned of his arrest from TV news reports or excited calls from friends and family.
"I was a little disappointed when we were over there and didn't get him," said Schuett, who headed for breakfast a Shoney's restaurant off post after seeing the news Sunday morning. "There was a little excitement when his sons were captured, but this is the big one."
There were no obvious signs of celebration at Fort Stewart itself, where military police went about their routine monitoring the light traffic heading into the post on a cold, rainy morning.
Fort Stewart commanders declined comment, not wanting to take the spotlight from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 4th Infantry Division, whose soldiers caught Saddam hiding on a farm near his hometown of Tikrit.
"We're happy for our brothers and sisters in the 4th Infantry," said Maj. Darryl Wright, a Fort Stewart spokesman. "We all knew it was just going to be a matter of time before he was captured."
But some Iraq war veterans said they would remain skeptical until they had more proof the man in U.S. forces' custody was really Saddam.
"It doesn't mean anything to me, with all the talk of all the (Saddam) impersonators, until they do DNA tests and know absolutely that it's him," said Sgt. Scott Cisna of the 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery Regiment. "You always hope that it's him, however."
Spc. Andrea Stanek, who served in Iraq monitoring computers for early warning of Iraqi missile attacks, agreed it's too soon to celebrate.
"I don't believe it, because it didn't look like him," she said of pictures of a haggard, bearded Saddam shown on television.
For the 3rd Infantry, Saddam's capture could be a decisive factor in future deployments if it hastens an end to the violent unrest in Iraq.
The division has a full year of combat training ahead in 2004. But its commander, Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, has said a return to Iraq is possible in 2005.
"It's good he's gone. Maybe we'll have troops stop dying," said Spc. Robert Rendulic, 23, a mechanic in the 11th Engineer Battalion who arrived at Fort Stewart after the 3rd Infantry had deployed to war. "It might stop everything. You never know."
That's a hope shared by many 3rd Infantry soldiers who, having just recently returned from Iraq, are now pondering having to return.
"Hopefully I won't have to go back over there or, if I do, it won't be as dangerous," Schuett said. "This is a big stepping stone."