Hugs, kisses, smiles and joyful tears greeted 253 soldiers who arrived home Saturday morning from a yearlong deployment in Iraq.
The soldiers who returned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord are the opening wave of about 3,500 members of 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division who will be returning through September.
"It's great to finally be home after being away," said. Capt. Brian Coaker, who was welcomed at Soldiers Fieldhouse by his wife, Brynne, and 10-month-old daughter, Katelyn, who wore a red-white-and-blue dress.
"She's probably wondering who I am right now," said Coaker, commander of C Company, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion.
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He said the Internet video-chat service Skype had been a great way to keep in touch while he was away. They talked nearly every day.
"I've been able to watch her grow," he said, adding that his daughter has more hair and teeth than the last time he saw her.
Like many of the awaiting families, the day started early for Brynne and Katelyn, who woke up at 2:30 a.m. at their DuPont home, arrived at the fieldhouse at 4 a.m., then waited.
"It's a long wait, but if he's been gone since November, I can wait five hours," Brynne Coaker said before the soldiers arrived.
The family's plan for the rest of the day: go home, take a nap, then possibly go to the Seahawks preseason game, depending on whether they felt up to it.
The returning soldiers had traveled nearly 24 hours from the time they left Iraq, then flew to Germany, then Maine, and finally to the runway at McChord, where the plane touched down about 5:50 a.m.
Returning soldiers then went through in-processing, where they completed paperwork and turned in their weapons, computers and any classified items. Single soldiers receive their room keys to the barracks and meal cards.
Once the entire group was finished, they got on six buses and came to the welcome-home ceremony at the fieldhouse.
The soldiers entered about 8:45 a.m. to a standing ovation as members of a brass quintet from the 56th Army Band played "Army Strong."
Not one to delay the impending reunions, Col. Anthony Cruz kept his remarks short: "Thank you for the job well done. We're proud of you."
The soldiers were dismissed. Many embraced loved ones, and the entire fieldhouse cleared out in less than 10 minutes.
Bambi Klitz, 29, and Kathy Shelton, 52, said they found support in each other during the deployment of their husbands. Bambi's husband, Spc. Richard Klitz, was on his first deployment; Kathy has been a military wife for 32 years, and her husband, Staff Sgt. Rodney Shelton, was on his fifth deployment, including four to Iraq.
The women talked at least once a day, including some middle-of-the-night calls.
"Insomnia was the worst part," Bambi Klitz said. "And the days you didn't get to talk to him Ö just the wondering."
"When I have that dream that he's lying there beside me, and I roll over to grab him and he's not there ... it makes for a disappointing wake-up," she said.
Her three children ñ Cody, 10; Madeline, 4; and Serenity, celebrating her 3rd birthday ñ wore hand-painted T-shirts that said, "Welcome Home Daddy" on the front. On the back was written, "We survive."
"It makes the deployment go faster when you have someone else to talk with who understands," said Kathy Shelton, who wore a gold cross around her neck and a shirt that said, "God Bless America" above a heart-shaped U.S. flag. She purchased the shirt specifically for the homecoming.
"Most of us went out and bought stuff," she said.
During her husbands multiple deployments, she has noticed that technology that connects families in the U.S. to soldiers in Iraq has greatly improved over the course of the war.
"When the war started, I was lucky to hear from him once a month," she said. "Communication was nil."
Back then, they stayed in touch mostly through hand-written letters, and maybe an occasional e-mail. This time they talked at least once a day, sometimes twice, via MSN Live's Internet video chat service.
"We got to talk every day this time, which made things a whole lot better," Kathy said.
The soldiers will have two days to relax, then will go through a 10- to 13-day reintegration program, "to shift their focus back to being home, and everything that entails," said 2nd Lt. Ashley Nicolas, HHC, 4th Brigade, Rear Detachment.
Many of the family members also have been through a one-day reintegration workshop, which focused on topics such as finances, communication and children. "It's to help them with things they're anxious about, and shift their focus to being a couple again, being a family again," Nicolas said.
Craig Robinson of Lacey said he was "excited and relieved" that his wife, Sgt. Summer Robinson, was home.
Summer hugged her children ñ ages 7, 8 and 11 ñ and said she felt, "exhilaration."
"It's been a long 12 months," she said. "I'm going to go home and curl up on the couch with my kids and watch TV."
Spc. Lanetta Jackson carried her 1-year-old son, Kardarious, who held a small bag of candy.
"I missed him, my little rugrat," she said. "I'm super-excited. I'm just ready to be home and be done with Iraq."