As troops return, dates with a picnic basket and trampoline

After 14 months in Iraq, soldiers arriving at Fort Hood want hugs and 'real food.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After 14 months and two delays, the buses pull up to the ceremonial field and idle for what seems like eternity. The sweat-soaked crowd whistles and waves and wonders about the hold up. Finally the buses roll away, revealing the troops in formation - the first glimpses many here have had of their soldiers in more than a year.

Amid cheers and camera flashes, the soldiers march forward under the direction of Company Commander Jason Swick, who stops them 100 feet from their loved ones. Stone-faced and saluting, Commander Swick presents the war-weary troops to a 1st Cavalry colonel for dismissal. Just then Swick catches a glimpse of his squealing wife clutching their baby daughter in the crowd - and he smiles for the first time in a very long time.

It's been a long road home for soldiers from Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division. They said goodbye two Christmases ago, and lives have changed in the meantime. Babies have been born. Siblings have graduated. Parents have retired.

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In all, the entire 1st Cavalry Division - some 17,500 soldiers - will be coming back by April. Their homecomings are especially sweet because these ground troops saw some of the roughest fighting in some of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.

"Standing on the field today are our latest heroes," says Col. Aundre Piggee during his brief ceremony remarks. "We say, 'A job well done, and welcome home.'"

Finally, the soldiers are dismissed and their family and friends rush the field, planting kisses, snapping photos, and crying like the day they were born.

Each day, a similar scene is replayed here as military planes touch down one after another on the central plains of Texas. The patriotic fervor and pride reflected in the crowds is further evidence that Americans are standing behind their troops and, to some degree, the war.

Indeed, many here say they understand the mission of the United States and support it - unlike 30 years ago when troops returned home from Vietnam to a very angry and fractured nation.

"There is much more of a sense of pride than there was in Vietnam, and that means a lot to these soldiers," says Dave Swavey, who was a teenager when the Vietnam War ended.

Mr. Swavey and his wife, Tricia, are resting in the shade and waiting for their daughter, Sgt. Natausha Judge. In the past 14 months, they closely followed news reports and sometimes heard explosions or gunfire in the background when they were talking to their daughter.

It was unnerving, says Mr. Swavey, "But if there's anybody you want over there, it's her. She's strong." In preparation for her daughter's homecoming, Mrs. Swavey has pasted every article that mentioned the 1st Cavalry Division into a binder along with photos of her grandson from the past year. At their Dallas home, a friend has tied 100 yellow ribbons around front-yard trees. They plan to head straight out for Mexican food, Natausha's favorite.

When Sergeant Judge strides up moments later, her eyes fill with tears and, clutching her 2-year-old son, Brayden, she says she simply wants to spend time with her family and "eat real food."

Initially, the 1st Cavalry Division was scheduled to come back before Christmas 2004, but were asked to stay through the Iraqi elections to provide security. That request took the hardest toll on the families, says Swick.

But for many of the soldiers, it was the most meaningful time of their entire deployment, he says. On Jan. 30, "Iraqi people were literally dancing in the streets after they voted. That personified more than anything what we were doing there."

Now, though, it's time to concentrate on the home front.

Lindsay Liedel drove from Michigan to greet her son, Capt. Steven Stauch. She knew he was Army bound by the time he was 4 years old and marching around in fatigues. "This was just something he had to do to fulfill his dreams," she says. But when he left, Ms. Liedel was torn between pride and fear. "I chose to hang onto pride instead of fear."

Other than his safety, one thing was foremost on her mind during Captain Stauch's long deployment. "I would always ask him if the Iraqi people were happy he was there. He told me that 95 percent of them were. That gave me comfort because I didn't want him to be giving all this time and possibly his life for something that nobody appreciated."

As more troops reach US soil, thousands of people from around the country will continue to descend upon Fort Hood and the surrounding towns. The return of the 1st Cavalry Division marks the first time the base, the largest in the US, will be full since the Iraq war started in March 2003.

The bustle will be only temporarily, as Fort Hood's other division, the 4th Infantry, prepares to return to Iraq in the fall.

But for now the focus is on reunions. Kimberly Gonzales has done her part. She has cleaned the house, put up streamers and balloons, and placed a bulging picnic basket on her husband's side of the bed. While she is looking forward to his return, she is even more excited to have some time to herself - without their 3-year-old and 8-month-old twins in tow. "I can finally go grocery shopping by myself," she says.

It's only been within the past decade that the military has gotten serious about helping families of deployed soldiers. Spouses are encouraged to remain on base and take advantage of the dozens of services are available to them - from crisis and coping classes to financial-management workshops to child-development skills.

In addition, soldiers go through two weeks of important reintegration training. For today's more than 700 returning troops, they will have three days off before that training begins.

"One day they are patrolling houses in Baghdad and the next they are home, but who knows for how long," says Angela Yesuvida, sitting in the bleachers. "That creates emotional stress and distance between couples. My husband and I are talking about divorce."

Mrs. Yesuvida says domestic violence can increase when soldiers return and struggle to readjust. To make the transition easier, she continues to run the household when her husband returns from long deployments. "I mow the lawn, clean the house, pay the bills. You have to be very independent."

Nearby, Sarah Salisbury is also waiting. For the occasion, she has gotten a French manicure and slipped into a new denim wrap-around dress and knee-high boots. She looks terrific - just the impression she hopes to make when she spots her husband, Spec. Christopher Salisbury.

Mrs. Salisbury says she plans to shut off the phones, computers, and TVs when they get home and spend three solid days getting reacquainted.

Her husband kept relatively quiet about what he was doing, says Mrs. Salisbury. "He didn't want to worry me and I didn't want to be worried."

Their three young sons are decked out in matching Army fatigues with their father's name stitched onto the chest. The oldest, 6-year-old Jason, knows where his father has been. "Iraq," he says confidently. Just how far away is that?

"Um, a long way," he says, not so confidently. But Jason knows one thing for sure: When daddy gets home, he wants to jump on the trampoline together. "One time when I was jumping on the trampoline with him, he made me go so high," says Jason. "I want to do that again. I miss doing that."

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