On the darkened tarmac of Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, N.C., they cried and hugged in long, very long embraces.
Last night, members of the Ohio Army National Guard s 323rd Military Police Company, based in Toledo, touched U.S. soil for the first time in eight months and their families for the first time in nearly a year.
Jane Kary, whose daughter, Nancy Kary, is a 323rd member, waited with other families at the Air Force base, watching the United Airlines 747 land at 9:15 p.m.
“Hopefully, they ll be able to go home to their families tonight,” she said.
Although the unit will get some leave this weekend, it must remain at Fort Bragg for about five days for debriefing and preparation to return to Toledo.
After a demobilization ceremony at the fort on Thursday, the unit could be back home by next Saturday.
Mrs. Kary and members of several other area families didn t want to wait that long. They made the 101/2-hour drive to North Carolina to see their relatives there.
The return was one of the last steps that would formally conclude the 124-member unit s deployment - nearly a year after being sent to Fort Bragg to prepare for a role in the Iraq war.
The mostly cloudy, windless, 39 degrees was a far cry from the searing heat that unit members had experienced during their tour of duty in Iraq.
The unit spent some time in northern Iraq before moving to the Kirkush Military Training Base about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, where they trained Iraqi police. The unit left Iraq for Kuwait late last month.
Although the unit was fired upon frequently, none of the 323rd s members sustained combat injuries. Several members of the MP company returned to Fort Bragg earlier this year with noncombat injuries and illnesses.
Maj. Gen. John H. Smith, Ohio s adjutant general, boarded the plane to welcome the troops home.
Members of the unit deplaned about 20 minutes after landing, greeted by family members who ran to them with flowers, American flags, and in one case, a baby boy whose father hadn t seen him yet.
“We made it!” one woman exclaimed, punching a bouquet of yellow roses into the air.
When the unit formally returns home next week, it will be the end of a tough, 28-month period in which it spent nearly 23 of those months deployed away from home.
The unit was deployed to Fort Bragg on four days notice in late January, and was sent to the Middle East in April.
It had just completed a one-year stint at the Army post in North Carolina in October, 2002, having been deployed to provide extra security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.