After serving under the Joint Area Support Group-Central since December 2007, Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Brigade, are heading home.
The 3/29th "Pacesetters" of the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team spent most of the past 15 months manning the Entry Control Points that allow access in and out of Baghdad's International Zone.
"I challenge anybody to show me a more challenging job, day in and day out, than standing on an ECP for 12 hours in the heat of the summer in full battle rattle," said Lt. Col. Kevin Gregory, 3/29th commander serving his third combat-zone tour. "It's tough duty."
Tougher still when you consider that the ECPs not only handle approximately 100,000 visitors per week, but are the first line of defense for the IZ - and for the Soldiers who work them.
"We came in and took the ECPs and understood they were fighting positions and put a lot of time and effort and money into those to make sure they were straight," he continued. "I believe, in the end, they saved lives from the rocket attacks. That in and of itself proved the worth of all the work we did."
The 3/29th Soldiers work the ECPs along with Iraqi soldiers, and since this past November, Iraq's Baghdad Brigade has taken control of the ECP mission, with U.S. troops taking a supporting role.
Despite this shift, 3/29th Soldiers continue to work with the fledgling Baghdad Brigade troops to help them develop their young non-commissioned officer corps.
"We've done extensive work trying to help them establish a structure," explained Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Miller, 3/29th command sergeant major.
"We have NCO professional development, where we talk about duties and responsibilities. We talk about battle drills. We talk about that role and that relationship between officers and NCOs; how you do all those basic things that a non-commissioned officer does," added Miller, who's also on his third tour in a combat zone.
In addition to their ECP mission, the 3/29th Soldiers also participated in Department of State escort convoys, carrying personnel and equipment to distant locations in Iraq. These missions taught the troops valuable lessons in coordinating with units whose battlespace they were transversing, communicating with air-support assets, and other valuable Soldier skills.
"We travelled right under 300,000 miles," explained Gregory, who added that only two improvised explosive device attacks were suffered during those missions, resulting in no significant injuries.
While those Soldiers were lucky to escape serious harm, not everyone in the 3/29th was as fortunate. The battalion has paid a price with several lives lost since arriving in theater in December 2007.
"The most challenging times have been the three memorial services we've had to do," said Gregory.
"You put all your effort and focus into not losing anybody," he continued, "but this is my third tour, and we've lost Soldiers every tour."
"Soldiers understand that's the business you're in and that it's going to happen," he added. "The hardest thing to deal with is the families, knowing that there are children back there now without a dad or mom."
But Gregory lives by his own word. He knows the business he's in and focuses on the positives rather than dwelling on the negatives.
"The Army's about people and the bonds you build over here," he said. "The people who are here and experience this with you; these Soldiers can go through anything."
The 3/29th is being replaced this month by 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment.