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Homecoming for troops who caught Saddam

Task Force Iron Horse, the 4th Infantry Division responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein returned home to Fort Hood, Texas today to true Texas homecoming. NBC News' Jim Cummins talks to the troops about their service in Iraq.
Members of the 4th Infantry Division and Task Force Ironhorse arrive at Fort Hood, Texas. Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Task Force Iron Horse, the 4th Infantry Division responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein, returned home to Fort Hood on Thursday to a true Texas homecoming. With an estimated 50,000 family members and well-wishers on hand, the base rolled out the red carpet for its troops.

The 4th ID is a military unit rich with tradition. It was formed in 1917 for World War One and 4th ID troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and fought in the jungles of Vietnam.    

Yet, when 12,000 troops deployed from here last May it seemed the war in Iraq was largely over. Their mission was to keep the peace and help Iraq rebuild. It was called Task Force Iron Horse.

At the flag-casing ceremony for their departure 11 months ago, Susanna Boland was there to bid her husband John, an armor lieutenant, goodbye.

Boland said it wasn't easy to see him go but "the guys over there now need reinforcements. So it's scary but it needs to be done," she said.

And the ongoing insurgency did take its toll on the troops. Over nearly 12 months, the men and women of the 4th ID saw plenty of combat and 79 of its soldiers were killed in action.

Capturing Saddam
“I focused on defeating the enemy and winning. I knew there was going to be a cost. I knew that we would suffer losses,” said  Col. James Hickey, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team (Raider Brigade) for the 4th Infantry Division.

“We had our fallen soldiers and our wounded soldiers. They remain in our thoughts, the fallen, but we didn’t dwell on it, we stayed focused on our enemy and winning,” Hickey continued. 

For the soldiers, the capture of Saddam in his spyder hole near Tikrit was a highlight of their service, but it didn’t make the months of combat afterwards any easier or safer.

For Spc. Chris Clingempeel -- who hails from Augusta, Ga. and spent four years in the Army before the war in Iraq -- Saddam’s capture was a bit of a surprise.

“When it happened it sort of was a shock at first, almost in disbelief because there had been other times that we had gone after him,” said Clingempeel, who was awarded a commendation medal for his service in Iraq.

“After [Saddam’s capture] it was just, OK we got another mission to do, let’s get it done,” Clingempeel said.

Spc. Esteban Bocanegra, who was Col. Hickey’s driver and security person the day Saddam was captured, put the capture into perspective. 

“It’s never going to make up for the Joe's we lost, but in a small way it kind of adds some satisfaction,” said Bocanegra.

For 1st Lt. Eric Tapp, who was on a corner of the farmhouse when Saddam was captured, the experience was unbelievable, but then reality sunk in.

“After we got back from that mission, it was kind of like, well we did that, we got another mission coming up, pretty much went right on to the next one," Tapp said.

For him, making life-and-death decisions for the 18-member reconnaissance and scout team was the most difficult part of his battle experience.

“Just making sure I made the right decisions, because any one of my decisions could have been life or death for those guys….that was what weighed most on my mind,” Tapp recalled.

Tapp returns to his wife in Houston after having won a Bronze Star with “V” for heroic achievement in Iraq.

Homecoming celebration
A sense of duty is the pervasive attitude among the soldiers who served in Iraq and their families and loved ones back home. But for one day, on Thursday, they get to celebrate, have a good time with their families, and forget about the war zone.

An part of the entertainment in Fort Hood, the Army laid on 12 hours of non-stop entertainment from the likes of Wayne Newton and Jessica Simpson and enough Texas beef to make 30,000 barbecue sandwiches.

Meantime, the soldiers and their families know there's a good chance they will have to return to duty in Iraq.

“If I’m in command of this brigade and I’m told to take it overseas again, that’s what we’ll do, and every soldier in this formation will do that and will do it with confidence," said Hickey. 

“I would gladly take the fight to the enemy in their country, rather than their bringing it to us,” said Bocanegra when asked about going back to Iraq. “Over there, it’s a job, it’s our duty."