President Barack Obama's decision to bring American soldiers home from Iraq by the end of this month had one big impact on Spc. Jonathan Veras and his Tacoma family.
The 25-year-old soldier would be home to catch the January birth of his second child.
"I'm right on time, " he said.
Veras returned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Tuesday with about 170 other soldiers from the 17th Fires Brigade and 62nd Medical Brigade. Their deployments were cut in half by Obama's decision to follow the withdrawal date his predecessor negotiated three years ago.
The 26-hour journey that brought them from Kuwait to McChord Air Field was historic for the base. It was the last significant homecoming to Lewis-McChord from Iraq.
About 100 other Lewis-McChord soldiers remain in Iraq. They'll return in small groups, likely to Sea-Tac Airport, over the next few weeks.
"It's pretty cool when you realize you were the among the last boots on the ground, " said Veras, who served with the 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade.
Sacrifices from Lewis-McChord helped topple a dictator, restore security as Iraq descended into bloody sectarian war, and create a relatively stable environment for a new government to rise.
"That's what we've been hoping for all these years, " said 17th Fires Brigade commander Col. Kenneth Kamper, who served twice in Iraq.
Kamper's soldiers anticipated a yearlong deployment to Iraq when they left their home station six months ago, even though they knew the U.S. withdrawal agreement called for all American forces to leave by Dec. 31.
Kamper thought he wouldn't see his soldiers back at Lewis-McChord until next year.
"We're so proud of them. We're just happy to have them home, " Kamper said.
The local soldiers found an unexpectedly busy tempo for a war they knew was ending.
Capt. Mike Neilen, a platoon leader in the artillery battalion, said his soldiers went on patrols every day to support Iraqi soldiers and American Special Operations Forces.
They served in Kirkuk, a northern city where a mix of ethnic and religious groups creates one of Iraq's lingering hot spots.
Neilen was worried attacks would rise when Obama announced the withdrawal timeline. All of his soldiers came home safely.
"Everyone was excited; everyone was vigilant, " said Neilen, 25, of Tacoma.
Some Army family members who greeted soldiers returning from Iraq had the war's casualties on their minds as they prepared to start a new chapter.
"We're just happy he was able to come home. We're just very grateful, " said John Wooten who drove from the Bay Area of California to welcome his son, Sgt. Christopher Wooten, who finished his first tour. The senior Wooten's daughter served two tours in Iraq.
Some family members had trouble believing they'd see their soldiers by Christmas even after Obama announced the withdrawal timeline.
"We thought they'd go to Afghanistan, " said Jennifer Grover, 34, who thought it was too good to be true when she heard her husband would come home early.
She carried a flashing sign and kept an eye on her two children Tuesday as she waited for Sgt. Michael Grover to appear in a Lewis-McChord gym. His sons ran to him as he laughingly broke formation and hugged his family. One son clung to his left boot.
"It's good to be home, " said Grover, 33, of Yelm.
Bleary-eyed soldiers tired from the long flight home were making plans to sleep and relax with family over the next week. They were starting to enjoy the little things about being home.
"Once we knew (the withdrawal date) was set in stone, it felt good, " said Sgt. Daniel Schultz, 27. "Today is amazing. America smells amazing."
IRAQ: THE LOCAL NUMBERS
100: Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers still in Iraq.
170: Number who came home Tuesday: 170
293: Lewis-McChord and Washington state service members killed in Iraq.
More than 12,000: Peak number of Lewis-McChord soldiers in Iraq at one time.
More than 114,000: Total soldiers mobilized for Iraq and Afghanistan at Lewis-McChord since 2001.
Source: Joint Base Lewis-McChord