Ulster soldiers fly back home for Christmas after Iraq tour
Ulster soldiers who spent six months on the front line in Iraq will be reunited with their families tomorrow when they fly back to the province for a six-week break.
This will be the first proper holiday the soldiers from the 1st Battalion Irish Guards will have had since returning home from the war-torn country where for months they were involved in intense fighting with insurgents before having the opportunity to train the Iraqi Army - the success of which has reportedly led to the Government's recent decision to hand over control of Basra to the Iraqi authorities.
Earlier this week Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the official hand-over, stating that the final area of Iraq under UK control would be handed over within two weeks.
Commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Michael O'Dwyer said the Irish Guards should be proud of their contribution.
"I think the whole tour has been a great success and I am humbled by the way we milled together as a team and the way some very young soldiers not long out of training grasped what they were there to do.
"They made a huge difference to our mission which was to develop the Iraqi army. This manifested this week with the Prime Minister saying he was handing over Basra to the Iraqi authorities.
"I wonder what we would have been able to achieve if we had have had the full six months to focus on the training as the first part of our tour was a different focus.
"But we had a great opportunity in the second half to make that difference."
A special ceremony was held at the battalion's home base at Mons Barracks in Aldershot yesterday to pay tribute to the 500 plus soldiers who recently returned from Iraq.
Lieutenant Colonel O'Dwyer said the ceremony was the "final curtain on a successful tour".
Before the ceremony took place the commanding officer met the troops to tell them personally they their efforts in Iraq were greatly appreciated.
"There are organisations that think we should not be in Iraq or Afghanistan but that is not our business. Everybody is appreciative of what we are doing," he said.
The commanding officer added: "Even though some of the wars are unpopular you and everybody in this battalion are valued for the contribution you have given and continue to give. There is no dispute about that. I want to pass on my thanks and appreciation to you because you are appreciated. You may not feel like it the whole time but I hope that when you go home you will feel that and the people you meet while you are there and your family will make you feel that."
After an intense six months in Iraq and 18 months training ahead of them before being deployed to Afghanistan, the troops say they are looking forward to six weeks with their families.
"I cant wait to get back. My missus just had a baby boy and I can't wait to see him. It was quite hairy when I was out in Iraq but when you are there you just do your job," said Sergeant Brian Phillips (22), from Belfast
Captain Sergeant Major John Dyer (37) from Bangor said: "We are ready to get back home. We all find it difficult being away. I have a two-year-old son so that makes it hard being away.
"This was my third time in Iraq and the first three months of the third time was the hairiest. We lost five of our men in total in Iraq. It is sad but those things happen and you just have to get on with it - but they will never be forgotten."