They arrived home from Iraq a week ago to thunderous applause in this small, working-class community - to flags waving, cars honking, and cameras clicking into memory those first long kisses that neither the couples nor their community will soon forget.
But a few days later, as the National Guard's 110th Maintenance Company gathers for an awards ceremony at the high school auditorium here in Ayer, Mass., the mood has already shifted.
Maj. Gen. George W. Keefe, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, welcomes home the company with the energy of a motivational speaker, but his footnoted reference to the nearing deployment of 600 more troops in the coming months elicits scattered gasps in the audience of hundreds. Some women clasp their hands to their chests and rock back and forth, while young mothers tend to noisy toddlers with a fatigued detachment. Just beyond the auditorium doors, the rain hits the pavement hard.
To many families in this town and others nearby, a hard, cold truth is settling in: The war is not over yet. The 110th is home, prompting ecstatic celebration, but the unknown duration of occupation already overshadows some of the joy. The feeling is as palpable to those in the National Guard as it is to those in permanent service.
"When we said our goodbyes to the other units in Iraq we said, 'We'll see you in OIF-4,' meaning the fourth rotation of Operation Iraqi Freedom," says Sgt. Allen Flagg, a Shirley, Mass., resident just back from a 14-month tour of duty. His young cousin Paul remains in Fallujah. "People going now are there as OIF-2, the second batch. The people going on the third batch already know they're going. The earliest we can get called back, in theory, is 4. But, you know," his voice trails off. "I think there's a sense that the US isn't going to leave there anytime soon."
For those returning, now is time to get back to normal, but not to forget Iraq entirely. Sergeant Flagg's wife, Elizabeth, says that now, "instead of making cookies for Daddy, we're making cookies for [cousin] Paul. Reintegrating is OK, but there's another part of us that feels this isn't done."
"When is it going to end? Nobody knows," says Ken Nichols, a Desert Storm veteran who saw combat in Iraq between 1990 and 1991.
Some members of the community are celebrating the troops' return not only because they are back, but because of concerns underlying the mounting death toll in Iraq.
Willia Cooper, whose son Lamont just returned with the 110th, chairs the local family support group. In the auditorium, she is thanked enthusiastically for rallying the families back home, and she assures the 200 men and women: "I know more of you than you think I do."
Yet Ms. Cooper, one of Ayer's most outspoken supporters of the troops, is also unabashedly vocal in opposing the war. "We don't support the war, we support the troops," she told National Public Radio, insisting the difference be clear.
After thanking the troops for their loyalty and bravery, Col. Barry Lischinsky approaches Mrs. Cooper, his voice breaking as he shakes her hand and proclaims, "Mrs. Cooper outranks me." The applause ripples into a standing ovation.
He then turns back to the company. "Last time I saw you, I gave you one order: to take care of each other," he tells the troops. "And you did that. You did that real well." But the hard part, he says, is still ahead. "While wearing the right shoulder patch of combat, I need you to go back to the new soldiers ... and I need you to explain to them some of the things that you have gone through. I need you to tell them the good things, and I need you to tell them the not-so-good things. And I need you to tell them how to survive."
The 200 uniformed soldiers respond with a "Hoo-ah!" as the families look on.
An hour later, after mingling over pizza and soda, a handful of uniformed men, young and old, trickle slowly into the parking lot. Bruce Springsteen howls out of one car; Jay-Z pounds out of another. The men wave as they part, windshield wipers keeping the rain at bay as they blink back their own good-byes - at least for a time.