A lot has changed for Army Sgt. Bryan Parker since he deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in February for a mission in the Middle East.
He left behind his wife, Ayla Parker, and toddler son, Malachai, who wasn’t talking much when Daddy left.
Parker returned home Tuesday with members of the 1st Batallion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment to a talkative 3-year-old and an infant daughter, Madeline.
“Mind blown,” said Parker, a mechanic, as Malachai sat on his shoulders and Madeline cried in her mother’s arms.
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It was Parker’s first live view of his daughter.
“We didn’t know I was pregnant when he left,” Ayla Parker said.
The Parkers were one of scores of happy reunions at Soldiers Field House on JBLM, where 100 or so members of the regiment celebrated their “redeployment” after more than nine months in the field.
Excited spouses, children and friends filled the grandstand. Some carried handmade signs with sayings including, “Daddy Welcome Home” and “I Missed U.”
Elements of the unit served in Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey and helped support the Iraqi military as it fought the Islamic State, which has taken over portions of that country.
Members of the battalion used their High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, also known as HIMARS, to provide fire support in several battles against Islamic State fighters.
The weapon system is capable of firing GPS-aided rockets as far as 186 miles with great precision.
“When they needed something shot, we shot it,” said Capt. Jamie Holm, who commands Alpha Battery. “We supported the central Euphrates Valley.”
That included areas around the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Hit, he said.
Soldiers of the battalion fired nearly 700 rockets against Islamic State targets, “with devastating effects on the enemy,” said Lt. Col. Frank Buchheit, commander of 1st Battalion.
Holm said the regiment originally deployed as part of a regional training and security mission called Operation Spartan Shield, but later was requested to assume a combat role.
Soldier worked mostly from Iraqi bases, but occasionally accompanied advancing forces on missions, and some were on the receiving end of enemy rocket fire, he said.
Some elements of the battalion deployed to Turkey to support efforts to battle the Islamic State in Syria, Holm said.
Spc. Austin Ketcherside, who participated in his first deployment, summed it up: “We shot a lot of missions and did our job.”
Rockets, MREs and Iraq were not on the soldiers’ minds Tuesday as they stood in ranks on the Field House floor.
The soldiers and their families rushed together to embrace, laugh and even cry when Buchheit concluded the ceremony with the words, “Now the most important part: Dismissed.”
“I’m so excited to have my partner back,” Ayla Parker said.