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First 101st Airborne troops return from Iraq

Army News Service

Release Date: 1/8/2004

By Spc. Anna-Marie Hizer

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (Army News Service, Jan. 8, 2004) -- Bitter cold and pre-dawn exhaustion did not deter the crowd waiting with signs, flags and smiles for the first flight of 101st Airborne Division Soldiers returning from Iraq.

More than 100 warmed the sub-freezing air for the first of two flights of Screaming Eagles returning to Fort Campbell in the early morning of Jan. 7.

"It's good, knowing that everybody is getting ready to come back," said Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Hayes, Headquarters Service Battery, 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, who himself returned one week prior to the flight. "Seeing my family [was the best]."

Another crowd of family and friends eagerly awaited a second airplane full of troops scheduled to arrive later in the morning. Though slightly smaller, this group showed as much excitement for their loved ones.

More than 300 soldiers returned on the two flights, marking the official start of more than 18,000 101st Airborne Division soldiers redeploying, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom since March of last year.

More than 600 soldiers are expected to be home by the end of the week, with the remainder, and their equipment, returning over the next three months.

Last year when the division received deployment orders, Feb. 6, they spent a whirlwind 10 days loading 1,200 rail cars with more than 4,500 pieces of equipment. Before returning home, the soldiers must prepare the same equipment for the journey to the port of Jacksonville, Fla., and then to Fort Campbell, said Army officials. Troops must also ready themselves and personal equipment for the trip.

In addition to the logistics of equipment transport, leaders and soldiers have the added task of training their replacements.

At around 2:45 Wednesday morning, equipment and training were far from anyone's mind as families and soldiers were only looking for one thing -- each other. Cheers and shouts greeted the first airplane as it touched down on Campbell Army Airfield, and soldiers crowded windows to wave back at family members on the ground.

Desert-clad troops filed into a hanger and formed up for a brief welcome home ceremony and word of thanks from Brig. Gen. J.W. Noles, assistant adjutant general, Tenn., before being released for a brief visit with families. Spouses, parents and soldiers rushed for each other with open arms, many for the first time in a year. Children and 'long lost' parents got re-acquainted, and some met for the first time.

"It's very exciting," said Spc. Lawrence Silversmith.

He beamed as tears of joy filled his eyes while holding his six-month-old son, Kaiden, for the first time. His wife Jamaica wiped back her own tears as she watched her family become reunited.

"I felt like my stomach was going to come out of my mouth," Jamaica said of her reaction to news that her husband was coming home.

Parents hugged and kissed their children, and some cried in disbelief over how much little ones had grown.

One father followed his daughter as she toddled along the hangar floor -- the first time he had seen her walk.

A little boy gazed up at the man in uniform holding him as he tried to remember daddy's face. Many families shared the same overwhelming feelings that their loved ones were finally home.

"You have to pinch yourself to make sure it's not a dream," said Sandy, wife of Maj. Jack Goetz, 1-320th Field Artillery. "[I'm] relieved that he's here and he's home and he's safe."

(Editor's note: Spc. Anna-Marie Hizer writes for the Fort Campbell Courier.)

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