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.'
FORT HOOD, TEXAS
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.