National Guardsman Scott Light was one of 150 anxious troops who returned stateside to wild cheers on the parquet floors of a Fort Bragg gym Wednesday - a tired smile lighting up his face.
Against his wife's wishes and the loss of some $60,000 in civilian income at a Caterpillar plant, the Chapmanville, W.Va., carried out his military duty - proudly. During a 10-month stint, he saw the first combat of his life, spending most of his days patrolling the Iranian border and dodging roadside bombs.
Now, as part of the largest group of national guardsmen to return from Iraq, the tank mechanic is quitting the National Guard, having made his mark and his point. "The Guard gets some abuse from people who don't think we can fight, but I think we proved them wrong with this mission," he says. "I'm proud of my duty, but now ... I'm going home to the mountains."
This graduating class of Iraq veterans - thousands of whom are returning to North Carolina and New York this week - reveals the resolve that has helped erstwhile "weekend warriors" fulfill difficult and vital missions in Iraq. But for many, a sense of duty coexists with disillusionment over long and hazardous deployments.
For these men and women, homecoming is a moment of celebration, but also the start of a challenging adjustment back to civilian life. And for America's armed forces, it punctuates new difficulty in maintaining the Guard ranks that are now so vital when the nation goes to war.
"The Guards and reservists are a great American story," says Stephen Cimbalo, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University. "You have these part-time ... citizen soldiers, and who would have thought they'd take so effectively to a war of indistinct fronts [and] a confused political and cultural milieu?"
Before their endless debriefs and connecting flights, the 3,100 returning soldiers of the 30th Heavy Separate Brigade had been part of a vast band in Iraq. The National Guard now accounts for about 40 percent of troops there and has taken nearly 20 percent of casualties, an unprecedented role. Though at least one Guard unit was left stateside in the Gulf War because it wasn't battle-ready, this time the Guard has "surpassed expectations" overall, says Cimbalo.
Today, some of these soldiers, 75 percent of whom live in small towns, come home to business challenges or feelings of irrelevance at work. Then there's the psychological readjustment and the trauma of battlefield memories. After all, many of these hometown cops, accountants, and mechanics found they hardly fit into the "hooah" military culture.
"Being a citizen soldier is kind of tough," says First Sgt. William "Buddy" Byrd, a Laurinburg, N.C., salesman whose recent Iraq deployment was his first in a 34-year career. "After all, we've got careers back home, and I've seen in some cases where deployments can have very adverse effects."
The result: a rash of retirement requests and no-shows at stateside barracks as new call-ups are announced. While a shortage of armor for the National Guard was big news last month, much of that could be attributed to decades of budget cuts, which tend to show up most in the part-time companies. (The 30th, on the other hand, was fully "armored up," soldiers here say.)
The Guard has maintained high morale, exemplified in last year's slight uptick in retention. But increased risks and a rosier job picture in the US haven't helped new recruiting. The Guard ended the year about 10,000 soldiers short of maintaining its goal of 350,000 troops.
As part of a recruiting campaign launched in December, the Guard is backing away from the notion of the "weekend warrior." Instead, the new "American Soldier" campaign features gritty frontline images that appeal not to personal gains but to patriotism. Meanwhile, the Guard retention bonus has gone from $5,000 to $15,000.
"The Guard and Reserve is still mired in structures that were fine in the cold war, but now we're having to reinvent them in the heat of battle," says Rick Stark, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
For many, even guardsmen who may have expected to see combat, the appeal of soldiering has worn thin. In part, expectations have been turned upside down.
Scott Sanders expected to retire from the Guard last February after 20 years. Instead, a stop-loss order meant the 50-something Akron, Ohio, sheet-metal worker headed off for his first-ever term combat, where he earned a Purple Heart after taking shrapnel to the throat.
While in Iraq, he refused to tell his wife, Laura, about his experiences, vowing instead to give her the details upon his return. "It's been terrible, awful," says Mrs. Sanders, waiting nervously for his return Wednesday morning. "I've been cursing the Army ever since [he left]. He just keeps saying, 'It's my job,' but now it's time for him to lay off and be a grandfather."
The late Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams, father of the "all-volunteer" force, may not have foreseen this pickle in revamping US forces after Vietnam.
The number and length of Guard deployments have skyrocketed. Stop-loss orders, which some call a backdoor draft (by keeping people from leaving), have affected many Guard members. Deaths among Guard and Reserve troops hit a single-month peak of 27 in November. And of nearly 200 who have died since the war began, more than one-third of the deaths happened in the past four months.
"The fact that the National Guard is holding together is really kind of a miracle," says Army First Lt. Timothy Lomperis (Ret.), a Saint Louis University political scientist who served as Abrams's aide-de-camp.
But one of Abrams's ideas has played out according to plan: By keeping small-town companies and units together, he planned to promote morale and raise the stakes of war. Experts say that's worked this time around. And when one guardsman confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over armor shortages at a recent photo-op, albeit at the behest of a reporter, the exchange spoke volumes about the role of individualistic citizen soldiers in shaping not just the battle but the view from Washington.
Drawing on the reserve force "activates public awareness of the conflict in America's communities," says Cimbalo. And, he continues, it's hard to fight for any length of time without tapping the reserves.
Like many troops returning to Ft. Bragg this week, Mr. Byrd takes pride in having answered a call to duty he first felt 34 years ago. But he hopes this deployment will be his last. "We're all-purpose guys," he says. "And we're not in it for the money, I can tell you that."