The second of the 1st Cavalry Division's four brigades deployed in support of Operation New Dawn officially returned Thursday, with the uncasing of colors for 2nd Brigade.

The morning homecoming and ceremony on Cooper Field marked the brigade's return from its fourth and final deployment to Iraq and its return to a brigade combat team from an advise and assist brigade.

The division's 4th Brigade Combat Team returned in September. Soldiers from its 3rd Brigade were the last U.S. forces to leave Iraq on Sunday, and are now on their way home.

Despite President's Barack Obama's Oct. 21 declaration that all troops in Iraq would be home for the holidays, the division's 1st Brigade will be in Kuwait for some months.

Col. John Peeler, 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander, said he was proud to lead his troops back to their families after a job well done — and just in time for Christmas.

"It's just a blessing," he said. "Couldn't ask for a better gift than being back for the holidays."

Black Jack brigade left in May for Iraq and was alerted it would be returning early from the country just weeks ago.

The brigade, which deployed to Iraq in May, was stationed mostly in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces in an advise-and-assist role in support of Operation New Dawn. The unit moved to Kuwait this fall and assumed an observation mission, in case it was needed again in Iraq.

Despite leaving with 12-month orders, brigade troopers were able to come home early.

Thursday marked the official end of the war in Iraq.

The country "still isn't Disney World," Peeler said, and can be a dangerous place; four brigade troopers were killed there. But it was "historic" to be part of the end of the war and "to see the opportunities established for the Iraqi people." Continuing, he said, "The soldiers you see today made those opportunities possible."

As to whether or not Iraq will be able to seize on those opportunities without assistance from U.S. forces, Peeler said, "The government of Iraq and its people have a large part to play. (But) I'm absolutely confident the conditions have been set."

Master Sgt. Stephen Peterson, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, was one of the soldiers who returned with Peeler.

"Elated" was the word Peterson used to described the reunion with his family, which included daughter Kendra, 6, and son Brandon, 4. "It's gotten tougher being away as they get older.

The soldier deployed to Iraq during the Gulf War in 1990, and four times in the post-9/11 era.

Jennifer Peterson, 41, said she and her children were looking forward to spending Christmas with her husband. In the past, the family has celebrated Christmas at different times of the year to accommodate his deployment schedule, but that arrangement gets harder as the children become older, she said.

Brandon, dressed in a three-piece brown suit for the homecoming, said the best thing about Christmas is his dad coming home, and the best thing about his dad is: "that I get to kiss him."

Despite the difficulties inherent in a military marriage, Jennifer Peterson said she and her husband are still deeply in love after nine years, and they function as a team.

"I went into this with my eyes wide open," she said, recalling their first date at a Chili's restaurant near Fort Gordon, Ga. "He literally looked at me and said, 'I'm a career soldier, and my goal is to be a command sergeant major and if you don't like that, then we've had a great lunch.'"

Stephen Peterson said the key to a military marriage is "keeping your spouse informed."

His wife agreed. "He keeps me abreast of everything, and I think that's why we're so close, and I don't freak out about anything." At the same time, Jennifer Peterson said her husband is a soldier's soldier who "blooms when he's downrange. ... I'm just so proud of him, and it's time someone knew it."