JBLM family travels long road to see their dad's return
September 17, 2010
By Don Kramer
JOINT BASE LEWIS-0MCCHORD, Wash. - Matthew Eckstein, 7, has been to 42 states and can name them all. He traveled through 19, as well as the District of Columbia, on his way to greet his dad, back this week from Iraq with 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Second Lieutenant Jason Eckstein, further assigned to the 109th Military Intelligence Battalion, returned in the first wave of 240 201st BfSB Soldiers, meet-ing friends and loved ones at Soldiers Field House Monday evening.
Eckstein's wife, Heather, loaded the couple's six children, with the dog and cat, into the new family camper in Georgia and began their odyssey in late July. En route, she home schooled the oldest boys, Matthew and Joshua 6, while attending to the couple's two sets of identical twins, 4 and 2 years old, Leila and Sarah, Nathan and Ryan, showing them first-hand some of the country's most memorable scenery.
"Part of it has been awesome," Heather said, waiting for the intelligence Soldiers to process through redeployment stations at McChord Field before catching buses back to Lewis Main. "When else can you take six kids that young and drive across the country' This is my excuse to travel. We've done it before, but never have taken the time to stop and see things."
The Ecksteins, minus Dad, began their journey at Fort Gordon, drove north through West Virginia and Pennsylvania, spent time in Chicago, looped through the upper Midwest, spent a week and a half in Colorado, then motored west through Wyoming and Utah, into Oregon and up the coast to JBLM, staying at a series of campgrounds, especially on military installations wherever possible because she felt safer there.
"We spent at least one night in every state," Heather said.
Mount Rushmore and the shore of Lake Michigan were highlights. Challenges appeared in every state. The difficult part, she said, was identical to the "awesome" part - taking six children across the country in a camper after teaching herself everything about the vehicle, from backing it up to dumping the tanks. Mostly, her days smacked of reality-TV scripts.
"I tore a ligament in my finger, one of the kids was sick, our cat ran away in Wyoming and never came back, I lost a part of the trailer hitch that attaches the trailer," Heather said. "We were like a train wreck."
The misfortunes culminated when one of the camper's tires blew in Michigan. As she attempted to change it with her dislocated finger, the rains came.
"I'm like, 'Seriously''" she said, realizing that it was Sunday, the day least likely to find a camper tire in a strange upper-mid western town.
"It's been really, really, really, really hard," she said, summing up the trip.
But Heather would not be dissuaded from creating a singular experience out of what might have been a mundane one. At its end was a long-overdue reunion.
The family hadn't seen Jason since Christmas, and before that, since he left for Officer Candidate School February 2009. She's essentially been on her own with the six little ones, she said, for 20 months - which created considerable trepidation for her.
"I'm really excited, but I'm really nervous too," she said. "I don't know what to expect. This was our first deployment. The whole 20-month ordeal, it feels like it's been forever."
On the east side of the country, Heather was far from the brigade's extensive support system. She also had no idea how the youngest four children were going to react to their father.
"When he left, the babies were babies," Heather said. "They weren't walking, talking little terrors getting into everything. Life has kept going, even though he's not been with us. It's been like magnified times six. Six little kids, all changing while he's been gone."
Jason arrived at JBLM after officer basic and branch courses, and joined his battalion in Iraq in November 2009. The brigade deployed in stages starting in September after a whirlwind year of preparation that required simultaneous force generation, training and deployment preparation.
The brigade reorganized from a military intelligence unit to a modular battlefield-surveillance brigade, adding Reservists and National Guardsmen to the flow of new Soldiers, transforming and broadening its reconnaissance mission to include surveillance and target acquisition. It also added a long-range surveillance company - C Troop, 38th Cavalry, the 63rd Network Support Company and the 602nd Forward Support Company, in addition to the two MI battalions, the 109th and 502nd.
The brigade stand-up required an almost total overhaul, complete with equipment, vehicles, amended missions and hundreds of new active-duty Soldiers.
The brigade commander, Col. Robert Whalen, congratulated his unit Sept. 23, 2009, during its flag-casing ceremony at (then) Fort Lewis on its ability to manage countless requirements during the yearlong run-up to deployment, observing "Soldiers adapt. They always do."
The 201st BfSB is the third brigade of its kind in the Army, and the first to deploy "in its entirety," according to Brig. Gen. Jeff W. Mathis III, who reviewed its farewell ceremony. It replaced the 504th BfSB from Fort Hood, Texas, headquartered in Iraq at Camp Adder.
About 1,000 201st BfSB Soldiers deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Joint Base Lewis-McChord release said "while deployed, the brigade conducted intelligence collection, surveillance, counter-intelligence, and reconnaissance in support of U.S. Forces Iraq and Iraqi security partners."
The brigade sent out more than 80 intelligence-collection teams to locations throughout Iraq, assisting U.S. and Iraqi forces in identifying criminal activities and seizing weapons caches. Members of the brigade also provided intelligence assessments and analysis for Multi-National Forces Iraq and U.S. Forces Iraq.
"The brigade's long-range surveillance company trained more than 500 Iraqi border patrol officers in surveillance, reconnaissance, and small-unit tactics, and participated in more than 75 joint U.S.-Iraq reconnaissance missions along the Iraq-Iran border," said JBLM spokesman Joe Kubistek.
All missions accomplished, the first group of the 201st BfSB main body arrived at Soldiers Field House Monday a few minutes before 8 p.m. Jason marched in the last rank of the mass formation and waved to his family as he entered the field house.
Colonel Laurence Mixon, I Corps G-2 officer, welcomed home the brigade's Soldiers and congratulated them on a job well done.
"Please take care of each other, love up on each other and thank you," Mixon said.
With that, the troops were dismissed and Jason was soon kneeling in front of his children, arms outstretched to his twin sons. Heather stood by, tears filling her eyes, while Jason picked up Leila, or was it Sarah'
"It feels great," Jason said about being back with his family, while Leila and Sarah clung to his pant legs.
He nodded toward Heather. "She never ceases to amaze me. She's an amazing wife."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-