FAIRBANKS, Alaska, Dec. 13, 2006 - Some 4,000 members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team gathered here yesterday to celebrate their accomplishments during 16 months in Iraq and mourn their losses as they uncased the unit's colors during a stirring redeployment ceremony. The soldiers assembled at the Carlson Community Center, just down the road from Fort Wainwright here, to reflect on their deployment and receive a rousing welcome home and thank you from Army and brigade leaders.Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey praised the "Arctic Wolves" for serving proudly under some of the most difficult conditions any unit has faced in Iraq. "Without a doubt, the Arctic Wolves were given the toughest challenge of any unit in Iraq," he said, particularly in Baghdad in the midst of growing sectarian violence.The brigade was due to return home in July when the Army extended its deployment four months, moving the brigade from Mosul to Baghdad to quell violence there."You took on the mission, and you did what great American army units have done throughout our history. You accomplished that mission," Harvey told the soldiers. "But you know better than anyone else that the 172nd's many achievements came at a heavy price."Nineteen soldiers died during the initial 12-month deployment, and another seven during the extension. In addition, another 350 soldiers were wounded in action."The nation mourns the loss of these soldiers. We will never forget them and what they did to preserve peace and freedom for our great nation," Harvey said.Harvey praised the soldiers for exemplifying the new Army advertising slogan, "Army Strong.""Arctic Wolves have been strong enough to always do the right thing, no matter how difficult the task," he said. "You have been strong on the outside, but also strong in mind. You never broke under pressure. You have been strong in spirit, by never accepting defeat. You have been strong in heart by never forgetting those for whom you fight. You have been strong in character by maintaining the highest ethical conduct while fighting the enemy ... with no moral compass."You have been strong in purpose by ensuring the mission was always accomplished, despite the disruption caused by the extension," he continued. "You have been strong for our nation, excelling under harsh and deadly conditions. And you have been strong for yourselves, living up to your full potential. You are truly 'Army Strong.'"U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a World War II veteran, praised the 172nd Stryker Brigade as "the nation's next greatest generation" that has brought pride to all Americans, but especially their fellow Alaskans."It takes an extraordinary person to volunteer to do the job that you have done -- a willingness to serve and to make a commitment to our country and to all of us," he said.That commitment "was never easy," particularly during the unit's extension, he said. "You did your job; you accomplished everything you were sent to do and more, and for that, you should be proud."Col. Michael Shields, the brigade commander, emphasized the importance of yesterday's uncasing of the brigade's colors in the unit's history, particularly because it followed one of the longest combat deployments in U.S. history.During that deployment, which included duty in northern and western Iraq, then in some of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad, "there was no place we wouldn't go, mounted or dismounted," he said.The unit hunted terrorists and insurgents around the clock, treated people with dignity and respect and protected the population in "a truly magnificent performance," he said."This success is because of our soldiers" throughout the chain of command, he said. "But the backbone has been and always will be our noncommissioned officers: our team leaders, squad leaders, platoon sergeants, first sergeants and command sergeants major."The leadership they provided, and the combat experience the brigade has gained, has made the 172nd Stryker Brigade the most experienced, lethal and capable combat force in the U.S. Army, Shields said. "You are proven in combat and tested," he said.Shields said his soldiers proved their professionalism most admirably during the low points of the deployment, when they lost a comrade. He recalled one particular difficult time, when a unit in his brigade took a wounded soldier to the combat support hospital then returned to their mission, maintaining discipline despite the emotional load they were carrying."And those are your high points, when you watch these soldiers perform, watch how they treat people with dignity and respect under some the most demanding conditions on this planet, up against the most demanding threat that rarely comes out of the shadows," he said. "It is an incredible, humbling experience to watch them perform."As a commander, Shields said he found it especially rewarding for him and his battalion commanders to be able to give mission, intent and guidance to their company commanders, empower them and give them the resources they needed, then watch them take the initiative."We had incredible company teams, platoons, and our soldiers," he said. "And the soldiers were making tactical decisions on the streets with strategic consequences." Watching them perform, "never cracking, never losing discipline and upholding the standard of the brigade and our Army and our Army values ... was very rewarding," he said.Now that they've redeployed, Shields said, the brigade members have become models for their fellow soldiers."With the uncasing of the colors on the greatest combat brigade in our Army's history, the 172nd SBCT has returned home," he said in ending yesterday's ceremony. "The strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf. Arctic Wolves."