FORT LEWIS, Wash. (American Forces Press Service, Sept. 12, 2007) - When the first planeload of Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division's 3rd Stryker Brigade returned here Sept. 10 after their second deployment to Iraq, they didn't arrive to a darkened, padlocked brigade headquarters.

In addition to a gymnasium full of loved ones and well-wishers, the 260 Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, were greeted by members of their own unit who had stayed behind to run the rear detachment.

Deploying units leave behind a "Rear D" to provide vital home-station support while they're gone. It maintains unit property and equipment, untangles pay and legal problems that arise during the deployment, and trains replacements being sent to the unit.

"We get assigned Soldiers, we train them, we equip them, and then we deploy them to the theater," said Maj. Kyle Marsh, who returned in May to take over command of the Arrowhead Brigade's Rear D. "Our charter is to get them to a basic level of capability and proficiency so that downrange they are not going to have to do that. They can get right out and get busy."

But these missions pale when compared to what Maj. Marsh called the Rear D's most important callings: taking care of Families and honoring the fallen. As the Rear D juggles its myriad missions, Maj. Marsh said, it never loses sight of the needs of deployed Soldiers' Families, particularly Families of troops killed.

Since the brigade deployed in June 2006, it's lost 54 Soldiers: 47 from the brigade and seven from units attached to it. Twelve died during Maj. Marsh's first two weeks on the job as Rear D commander, and he said dealing with casualties never gets easier.

"Casualty operations are our glass ball," Maj. Marsh said. "You cannot drop the glass ball. That's the most important job we do."

Maj. Marsh is the first to get the call that there has been a casualty, typically from the front and often in the middle of the night. That's terrible for him, he said, but equally painful for his 7-year-old daughter. "She hears the phone ring and knows that it means," he said. "She knew daddy was in Iraq fighting bad guys and that he's back here burying good guys. That's very tough."

When Maj. Marsh gets the call, he scrambles the Rear D into action, arranging for the next of kin to be notified and for a casualty support officer to step in to assist the Family. Casualty care teams of volunteers from the brigade's Family readiness groups offer to come to a Family's side immediately, until the official support network takes over.

In addition, Rear D troops provide the rifle teams, buglers and speakers to honor brigade troops at their Fort Lewis memorial services.

During a recent service at the post's main chapel, Maj. Marsh eulogized six brigade Soldiers killed in Iraq: Staff Sgt. Fernando Santos, and Spcs. Zachariah Gonzalez, Alfred Jairala, Cristian Rojas-Gallego, Eric Salinas and Charles Heinlein Jr.

Maj. Marsh honored the fallen troops for putting their country above their own lives and urged those at the service to "pause and pray for the Families, for comrades, ... and for healing of this unit and post."

Much of that healing -- which officials here say the entire brigade, including its Families, must go through -- begins with the Rear D.

Maj. Marsh works hand in hand with Darlene Pacheco, the brigade's Family-assistant representative, and Melissa Townsend, wife of the brigade commander, throughout the deployment to ensure Families never feel abandoned.

More than half of the brigade's 4,000 Soldiers are married, said Mrs. Townsend, whose husband, Col. Steve Townsend, is still in Iraq. Nearly 2,000 brigade Families have remained in the Fort Lewis area during the deployment.

The Rear D team works through Family readiness groups to give these Families information about the unit and tools to help them cope. They bring in speakers to talk about everything from mental-health issues to self-defense. They steer Families in need to resources available to help them. They plan fun activities so Families can pass the time together.

"Our team is bringing compassion and support," Mrs. Townsend said. "We strive to help give them the tools they might need to successfully get through the deployment."

Like Mrs. Townsend, Mrs. Pacheco knows what it's like to be the wife left behind during a deployment. Her husband, now retired, deployed throughout his career, giving his wife the personal as well as professional insights she applies every day on the job.

These skills have been particularly valuable helping Families cope during a 15-month deployment, Mrs. Pacheco said. She said a three-month extension announced after the brigade left for Iraq proved to be particularly challenging for Families.

Those additional months "are the longest three months of your life, because you hit the wall," Mrs. Townsend said. "Between month 13 and 14, you start wondering, 'Am I going to push through this or not''"

"It's like having an elephant on your chest," agreed Mrs. Pacheco. "You can't breathe because you're so consumed with worry about your loved one."

That's typically when problems arise at home, she said. Cars won't start. Toilets leak. Children start acting out. Anything that can go wrong does.

At each step of the way, the brigade's Rear D and Family support network work together to help Families through the tough days and steer them toward help they need. Sometimes the most important thing they can offer is a shoulder to cry on and a reassuring hug.

"We have become a Family," Mrs. Pacheco said of the team and the Stryker Families.

While Maj. Marsh prepares Soldiers to go into combat, Mrs. Pacheco said the brigade's Family network ensures their Families are ready, too. "Our job is to prepare Families and have them battle-ready," she said. "That means providing resources (and) giving them the tools they need to be able to function as a sole parent for a year and a half. And that's a big undertaking."

Mrs. Townsend admits to being more "hands-on" than the average commander's wife. But as challenging as it may be to work with Families throughout a long deployment, it's gratifying as well, she said. "I couldn't see myself doing it any other way," she said, noting that the Soldiers' Families become her own Family while her husband is deployed.

Maj. Marsh compared the bonds that form within the Rear D to those that Soldiers develop on the battlefield. It's a bond he called critical to the brigade's mission, because it ensures that deployed troops can focus on their mission, and not be distracted by unmet needs at home.

"This dynamic brings the warfighter confidence and stability," he said. "Their mind is so engaged on staying alive that if they had to worry about what goes on back here, they couldn't do their job."

"If things are going OK back here, then he can focus on what he should be focused on," Mrs. Pacheco agreed. "And that's our job back here: to take care of Families, pride them with resources and compassion."