Finally, they were almost home. After months of waiting, weeks of fighting, hours of flying, the US troops on board the United 747 were on the last leg of their interminable journey to North Carolina, where home-cooked meals and squirming kids were waiting.
But then, suddenly, one more unexpected stop: The jet touched down in Chicago for, of all things, a de-icing. It was the last thing the troops wanted. Yet as they disembarked to stretch, travelers in the terminal - dozens of them - erupted in cheers at the mere sight of the uniformed soldiers. It was like the return of the 300 Spartans. People waved. They applauded. They offered cellphones so the soldiers could call home.
The spontaneous tableau this week at Chicago's O'Hare airport is one of dozens that are occurring across the United States as soldiers begin to return home from Iraq for receptions that are markedly different than some wars of the past.
Returning troops have expressed outright surprise at the impromptu receptions by strangers. In this era of an all-volunteer force, in which the public is more personally removed from the military, it was the potential public reaction that made most troops wary. Many soldiers watched huge antiwar protests on the news and weren't sure of the reception they'd get at home. At the end of their shifts, they'd often gather in tents and talk about the stateside mood.
"Did we talk about it and did it matter? Yes," says Air Force Capt. Jeff Isgett of Fairbanks, Alaska, an A-10 pilot who flew forward air-control missions over Baghdad. "We fight for our country, we love the people of this country, and we love what it stands for, so the hardest part was [feeling] that people had a lack of trust" in military officials, he says.
The reaction is, indeed, different from wars of the early- and mid-20th century, says Brown University historian Deborah Cohen, author of "The War Come Home" about disabled vets. "If you look at the response to veterans returning home from great wars from the mass-mobilized army, most were conscripted and everyone viewed them as their sons," Professor Cohen says. "But that's no longer the case. The consequence is that the chattering classes ... do not, most of them, know people who have served."
But the cheering classes do. If you weren't family, you couldn't squeeze into Seymour Johnson Air Force Base as troops returned. But that didn't stop hundreds of locals from thronging the approach to the base. When 12 F-15E strike eagles banked in two by two, they saw a 50-by-30-foot flag, on loan from a local bakery, held by dozens in a Food Lion parking lot. After landing, that was all the airmen could talk about, says First Lt. Beverly Mock, a base spokeswoman. "They lined their planes up and came in right over the flag," says John Peacock, president of Wayne County's Chamber of Commerce. "There were men with walkers and a woman in a wheelchair clamoring to hold that flag."
On Monday, tangles of war-weary Rangers touched down in the wet lowcountry of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga. The event was capped by a delirious Delta Air Lines pilot, who held a US flag out the cockpit window on taxi and mugged for a camera in front of the Rangers in formation. The battalion commander said a few words about three Rangers who were lost on the mission. Then he called for the "Hug-X" - military jargon for "Hugging Exercise" - and the Rangers broke their ranks.
"All these women were all dressed up trying to look their best for their soldier husbands," says Steve Hart, a spokesman for the airfield.
For most, it's just a relief. Many are going fishing; others are taking Bermuda cruises; some are "disappearing" from the Army's omnipresent radar for the first time in months.
"They have to come in later to clean their gear and get it prepared for whatever's next," says Army spokeswoman Carol Darby on the return of two units from the 75th Rangers to Fort Stewart, Ga. "Then they get a long weekend."
On Thursday aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush welcomed troops home - and declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. Now and in coming weeks, the ebb of troops departing is being replaced by a surge homeward. "Soon this trickle will be a tidal wave," says National Guard Col. Alan Smith, pointing out that nearly 200,000 Guards were called up for duty in Iraq.
Friday's piecemeal arrivals - a contrast to the return en masse from the first Gulf War - have a lot to do with the military's changing nature. Gone are the large unit deployments of World war II and the year-tours of Vietnam. In New York, sporadic arrivals are complicating Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for an old-fashioned ticker-tape parade. But the patchy homecomings across America are indicative of a new fighting force: Smaller units, greater cohesion, humbler processions.
"It's like the first Gulf War, but with smaller, more personal ceremonies," says Matt Seelinger, a historian at the Army Historical Foundation. "There's uncertainty, because we've still got men there, and they're going to be there for a while."
For sailors on the USS Shiloh, at sea for a grueling 10 months, their looming arrival unleashed a barrage of emotions: Giddiness, sure. But also apprehension - and even guilt for abandoning family for so long. As the Shiloh headed to port, the 400 sailors said they looked forward to the little things: time with family, a meal at a favorite restaurant, just driving a car.
Homecomings, of course, evaporate into normalcy - worries far less menacing than being shot at. But while enlisted soldiers pretty much have their jobs guaranteed, fitting back into the world of work will be a challenge for some Guardsmen and reservists. In the past 15 months, 1.8 million jobs have been sliced from the US economy. It's unclear how many were held by troops in Iraq. In Richmond, Va., four servicemen won't find their jobs at Circuit City after layoffs. Several war pilots, too, won't have cockpits to come home to - thanks to a faltering airline industry.
Still, few things - not war, not work - could overshadow the scenes playing out this week, as veterans tried, albeit awkwardly at times, to adjust their military bearing to civilian relief.
In a mirror-image of the return of Vietnam POWs to Travis Air Force Base in 1973, wives and children wept and surged toward the planes as 100 airmen descended Tuesday to the tarmac.
Some couples embraced silently. Families melted into tearful group hugs. Thirteen-year-old Micheal Santa says he prayed each night that his dad, Master Sgt. Jairo Santa, would return safely. Nearly every day, Micheal watched news of American bombings over Baghdad, knowing his father was refueling those bombers in his KC-10 air refueler. "It was scary," Micheal says.
The Air Force had laid out a spread of burgers, hot dogs, and soda. But most airmen were keen to return to their kitchens. "[Jairo] is ready for a break," Gwyn Santa says. "I put a stew in the crock pot."
• Pamela Martineau contributed to this story from Travis Air Force Base, and material from the Associated Press was used.