Soldier welcomed home after year in Iraq

Toby Hockenbury, 24, thinks of himself as "nothing special," and yet many people would beg to differ. He has just returned from a one-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army Reserve in Baghdad, Iraq.

Specialist Hockenbury served with the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion based at Fort Lewis. The 448th managed a variety of infrastructure projects such as sewer, garbage, electricity and school projects and also worked as a liaison between the U.S.-led coalition forces and the local population. His unit occupied Saddam Hussein's former intelligence headquarters in downtown Baghdad.

The former North Bend resident, whose family still resides in the Valley, said he is grateful to be back home without injury.

He returned to the United States on May 15, spending about two weeks at Fort Bragg, N.C., for demobilization. "That wasn't too bad," he said. "We were anxious to get home, though."

On June 2, he returned to Washington state. On Sunday, July 23, he was recognized at a homecoming service at the Shepherd of the Valley Church in Maple Valley along with three other soldiers.

"We really didn't want to go into details," he said. "We just kind of went there and gave a little brief of what it was like, nothing too exciting."

Hockenbury said the congregation was "really, really supportive." This is the same congregation that has been sending care packages to Hockenbury and his fellow soldiers. Congressman Dave Reichert, R-WA, who represents Washington's eighth congressional district, was present, as was North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing and Maple Valley Mayor Laure Iddings. Hearing presented Hockenbury with a special plaque noting the community's thanks for his service.

The service was the culmination of a yearlong tour. After a two-week leave in late November 2005 that followed the first six months of his tour, he returned to Iraq on December 21 of last year.

"It was hard to keep focused because you know you are going home," he said.

As it turned out, feelings of distractions quickly evaporated. "It wasn't too hard for us because the day I got back ... I lost two good friends of mine," said Hockenbury.

"So that just sucked us all down to earth, and we're like, 'We're here, it's real,' and the month of December it was really, really hard in our area. So many people got lost, and so it was definitely an eye-opener," he said.

The activity level had spiked during the previous summer and then again that fall at about the time of Iraq's Constitutional Referendum vote on Oct. 15 and the parliamentary elections on Dec. 15. Upon Hockenbury's overseas return, life seemed to become busy again as the new Iraqi government spent the next several months settling the details of the actual administration, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's officially forming the government May 20.

The Third Infantry Division, which Hockenbury's unit had previously worked with, was replaced by the 101st Airborne Division. The 101st had participated in the initial ground war in the spring of 2003, before returning home in early 2004. Since the nature of the conflict had changed considerably in its absence, Hockenbury's unit was tasked with helping bring the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st up to speed on its new role as a civil affairs and stabilizing force in eastern Baghdad.

"It [was] a whole different war," he said.

The 448th took the fresh 101st troops on up-to-twice-a-day orientation missions. The emphasis was clearly on cementing relationships with the local community and helping the fledgling government get underway.

"The first half seemed like it was more physical because of the heat ... The second half was more of a mental war," he said. "We just did what we had to do to get out of there alive."

Meanwhile, the area his unit was tasked with helping manage expanded from a small southeastern section of Baghdad to pretty much the whole "Eastside" of Baghdad.

He went from supporting one four-man team to supporting all the teams in his company. The area his unit patrolled included the northeastern portion of Baghdad, including Sadr City, which Hockenbury described as "the wild West," and Adhamiya, a mixed Muslim Sunni-Shia neighborhood that was the scene of many confrontations between various factions.

Before long, it was time to go home. "It sounds weird, but leaving was leaving was really, really hard because I made so many friends [with] locals, and our interpreters," he said. "One part of you is like, 'This is the best thing ever, I'm out of here.' But another part is like, 'Man, this is depressing, you know?' You're like, 'What's going to happen next?' and [wondering], 'Have I made a difference here?' So that was hard."

Getting home was a shock, too. "Then when I got back, you're going through it, [thinking] 'I'm glad I'm back, but I really kind of want to go back [to Iraq],'" he said.

Hockenbury said that this is a common sentiment among his fellow soldiers. Many feel a desire to return and keep working at their jobs. "You just have so much there, your life is there, and then you leave, and then you come home. It's not dull, but it's a 180 from what you're doing," he said.

Since his return, Hockenbury has been spending the summer working part time and generally taking it easy, decompressing from his tour and trying to gradually re-acclimate himself to life back in the U.S., he said.

Hockenbury said he plans on staying in the Reserves for now, though he said his next career goal is to try out for the U.S. Army's Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga. Then, he said he may join the active-duty Army.

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