By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press
FORT KNOX, Ky. - An Army unit that endured blistering heat and blinding sandstorms while hauling war machinery across the Iraqi desert basked in a homecoming filled with flag-waving Thursday.
The 137 soldiers in the 233rd Heavy Equipment Transportation Company marched onto a parade field to cheers from relatives and comrades as an Army band played. Many in the crowd waved tiny American flags.
The soldiers formed the only active Army unit deployed from Fort Knox to participate in the war against Iraq.
The unit, which left for Kuwait in late February, logged nearly 1.3 million miles while hauling everything from tanks and assault vehicles to bridges and supplies to support U.S. and British forces.
Maj. Gen. Terry Tucker, Fort Knox commander, hailed the unit for its unsung efforts that supplied forces with battlefield firepower.
"This is the outfit that got the United States Army and the United States Marines Corps to the fight," Tucker said.
"We watched the Army and the Marine Corps fight on TV every day and every night. What we didn't see was the work of these men and women that got them there in a condition ready to go do America's bidding."
The unit suffered no casualties. The soldiers did not come under enemy fire.
Lt. Col. Ty Seidule, the unit's battalion commander, said the Fort Knox unit amassed more miles than any other Army transportation company. The unit was based in Kuwait but its missions took it deep into the heart of Iraq, including to Baghdad.
"They would haul for days at a time," he said.
The soldiers returned earlier in the week to reunite with loved ones.
"It feels great to be back with my family," said Sgt. Alberto Rivera. "It's just a wonderful feeling."
Rivera estimated he accumulated 20,000 miles while driving through "the worst conditions that you can possibly imagine" - triple-digit temperatures and sandstorms that coated soldiers and equipment.
Iraqis hurled rocks at their windshields and sometimes jumped on trucks to try to take supplies, Rivera said. Children stood in the way of convoys, which U.S. soldiers worried might be ambush plots, he said.
Rivera and his wife, Chrystal, were married a month before his unit left. While he was gone, she carried pictures of him, including one showing him in his Army truck holding their wedding picture.
"It just helped me hold it together," she said.
Chrystal Rivera said she was scared by the rash of sniper attacks against U.S. forces since Saddam Hussein was toppled from power.
"I'm more scared now because I think it's more unpredictable," she said. During the actual war, "you knew who your enemies were. Now I don't think it's very clear," she said.
The U.S. soldiers still deployed in Iraq were remembered at the homecoming ceremony. "God bless those soldiers still fighting today in Iraq," Tucker said.
Since his return, Rivera has savored a steak dinner and watched baseball. He is hoping to spend time in Texas visiting relatives.
Evon Reeves, the girlfriend of Spec. Jose Amado, said her boyfriend had told her that "air conditioning is gold."
Spec. Bruce Ungerer cradled his 10-month-old daughter, Christina, in his arms after the ceremony. She learned to crawl while he was away.
"It was tough being away from her," he said.
Spec. Paul Jennings held his 2-year-old son, Gage, while his 10-year-old daughter, Brooke, stood nearby wearing his helmet.
Tucker also praised the soldiers' families for their sacrifices while their loved ones were away at war.
"There are millions of Americans who have no idea what it's like to watch a war on television just hoping for a glimpse of your soldier, while at the same time praying that your soldier is far away from the action that you're watching," Tucker said.
"But there are people in these stands that know about it, because they lived it for the months that you were gone."
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