The families came early to the hangar at the Asheville Regional Airport. They waited expectantly - seemingly interminably - for the C-130 cargo plane to descend out of the clear North Carolina sky as the wind rustled through the hickory and elm outside.
Finally the plane taxied in, the hatch swung open, and Army Spc. Traci Adams poked her head out - waving an American flag. Sgt. Dave Ponder rushed to his family and hugged his son, Zeke, for the first time. The boy cried. Two other sergeants showed - to their families' wonderment and perhaps distress - their matching scorpion tattoos in Arabic script.
In the human tableau at the hangar here, a year's worth of anguish and heartache and worry was distilled to a moment of hugs and looks and embraces. Another group of American soldiers had come home. Finally.
At a time when the tours of many soldiers are being extended, the return of Charlie Company to the rumpled hollows of North Carolina was particularly poignant.
The members of Charlie Company had spent 12 months patching up soldiers and orphans In Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar. The military medics received a hero's welcome as hundreds of well-wishers cheered their small column, first at the hangar, and then as they marched along the tulip-lined sidewalks of this tiny college town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Toting stained pillows and hoisting old college backpacks, the 120-member company from the 161st Area Support Medical Battalion returned unscathed and a world wiser, and they looked more bewildered than heroic. As the country faces a bittersweet reckoning of homecomings and soldiers' funerals in the deadliest month of the war, Charlie Company now faces the long adjustments between Middle East desert and their hometown Appalachian hills. Indeed, the possible lingering effects of the war are still not known, and their hero status may soon wear thin, some experts worry.
But for now, families here have been most concerned about giving their long-gone wives, husbands, sons, and daughters a proper welcome. "You may not feel like heroes since you weren't getting shot at every day or fighting in Fallujah," Col. Rick Rogers told them as he choked back tears. "But to Americans, you are heroes."
Yet even as Boy Scouts and blue-haired ladies waved roses and flags, the V-word - Vietnam - hung in the air like a chilly mist. In fact, organizers made a conscious decision to bring the celebration to Mars Hill instead of facing potential antimilitary protests in downtown Asheville, which has a noisy antiwar contingent.
"When we came back from Vietnam, there was nothing like this for us," says veteran Carl Mumpower, the vice mayor of Asheville. "These folks come home as assets, not liabilities. They're going to make their communities stronger."
Still, the seeming parallels to past conflicts - and the potential of returning soldiers being booed by crowds - indicated a tentative public-relations situation, a fine line between orchestrating patriotic emotion and shielding soldiers from abuse.
"That they'd move this out of our largest city to appease protesters makes me sick," says Peter Dawes, editor of the Mountain Guardian newspaper. "If you can't be proud of being American on a day like this, you can't be proud at all."
Charlie Company, essentially a desert MASH unit composed of a diverse team of mountain mechanics and medics, treated some 47,000 patients - a few bullet wounds, some critical cases, but mostly lighter ailments. While they were gone, kids were born and parents died.
Amid the hugs and tears Wednesday, there was a palpable loss of innocence. "Most of these soldiers had never experienced death before, and they got to see it firsthand," Col. Richard Broadhurst, the company commander, told the crowd.
Yet the sand-laden winds of Iraq started to become a memory as soon as boots hit the tarmac. Louise Bartlett - "Nana" to her grandkids - came to the airport admittedly looking like a Japanese tourist: Four cameras hung from her neck, and she pointed one of them as the C-130 touched down and Specialist Adams stuck her head out of the top hatch.
As she always does - often to the embarrassment of her family - Ms. Bartlett narrated: "It's April 21, 2004, at Asheville Regional Airport, and our troops are coming home after over a year overseas."
It has been a tough stretch for her arriving nephew, Sgt. Brent Silver. Home for Thanksgiving, his mother died a day before he was set to return to Iraq. He got a week's extension so he could attend the funeral. Ms. Bartlett suddenly tears up: "She worried about him so much."
Teresa Edwards, Sergeant Silver's cousin, says she spent the year exchanging e-mails about the tedium of life in Iraq and North Carolina. "We've grown closer because of this," says Ms. Edwards, who works for a Winston Cup racing team.
Officers told the soldiers to focus on their families - and ease their way back into civilian life. "Do not let your families become a casualty of this war," Colonel Rogers told the troops at the airport.
Those sentiments stretched to many who watched the parade in Mars Hill. "I remember how people were treated in Vietnam, and I don't want that happening to these guys," says Dwayne Arrowood, a Madison County phone repairman.
Others say the worries over protests here shows how close to Americans this war has come, and how divided over it many remain. "Sometimes it seems like military families are the ones behind this war, and everyone else is against it," says Jeff Winrick, waiting with son Josh for his soldier-wife, Pattie.
Jane St. Clair clutched her daughter, Spc. Kathleen St. Clair, as though they were walking through a windstorm. "From now on, I'm going with you wherever you're going," she whispered.