FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Soldiers from the Army's 214th Military Police Company returned from Iraq to the welcoming arms of friends and family at Fort Benning, although the celebration was tempered by the loss of one of their own in the war.
The 63 soldiers of the Alabama-based National Guard unit, with detachments in Tuskegee and Alexander City, Ala., stood together in a moment of silence Saturday to honor the memory of Sgt. Aubrey Bell, 33, of Tuskegee, who was killed Oct. 27 by an Iraqi suicide bomber in Baghdad.
"It was very tough," Capt. Johnathan Clifton, commander of the unit, said of Bell's death. "We're like a family. It was like losing one of your own family."
The unit spent the past year training the first classes in the new Iraq national police force, which will eventually number 75,000 officers.
Sgt. Frederick White of Alexander City said it was hard being away from his family, but that he took comfort in the knowledge that he was involved in a meaningful mission.
"We played a major role in establishing the first Baghdad Police Academy," White said. "We succeeded there and we handed it off to others up and running."
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama commended the soldiers for their service before they were officially released to their families.
"You've put your life at risk, but it matters. It's making a difference," Rogers said. "You're going to look back with great pride at this turning point in making history."
Leaving the ceremony, Clifton walked across the hot tarmac with Sgt. Barry Denham of Dadeville, Ala., who had broken a leg three weeks ago and was making his way with crutches.
A year ago, Clifton had left for Iraq with an Auburn University flag, and he left that flag flying above one of the buildings where he and other 214th members trained Iraqi officers at the Baghdad Police Academy complex. Clifton said he wished the unit could continue its training work because the Iraqis needed more of it, but he was optimistic about their ability to do the job down the road.
"Every class, we had them for eight weeks, and so that gave us plenty of time to try to instill discipline and democracy, being proud of who you are, being proud of being a police officer like it is in this country," said Clifton, who is a canine officer with the Opelika (Ala.) Police Department.
Standing nearby was Clifton's wife, Tammy, a schoolteacher who spent the year with 20 first- graders while he spent his year with about 130 soldiers.
"I've been deployed longer than I have been married," Clifton said. "So it's time for me and her to settle down and start our relationship back over again ... It's going to be good."
The remaining members of the 150-person unit are expected home by Monday.