TRENTON - The homecoming was picture-perfect.
Blackhawk helicopters flew over the Statehouse, artillery boomed, and cheering crowds lined the streets yesterday as more than 2,800 New Jersey National Guard soldiers officially ended their Iraq deployment and marched to their waiting loved ones.
A mile away, spouses, children, and other family and friends patiently watched the parade on a Jumbotron at the Sovereign Bank Arena, listened to patriotic music, and caught performances by the comedian Joe Piscopo and others.
Their excitement grew as the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team drew closer. Down State Street, then Broad, the soldiers moved with military precision, smiling and nodding to acknowledge enthusiastic onlookers applauding and waving flags.
There hadn't been such a parade since the end of World War II. The number of spectators was estimated to be as high as 16,000.
But if the soldiers were surprised by that welcome, they were floored at the arena, where thousands met them with thunderous clapping and stomping, cheers and tears seemingly exceeding any received by Pavarotti, Cher, or others who have played there.
No one could have written a better ending for the mission that began last June: 2,875 left, and 2,875 came home.
"We've been waiting for this for a year," said Lisa Larranaga, 46, of Pine Hill, who waited with her husband, Manuel, 53, for their Army specialist son, Manuel Jr., 24. "When he left, he said, 'Don't worry, don't worry.' "
"I'm just glad he's home now," added her husband.
The couple received text messages from their son before he entered the arena. Then, somehow, they spotted him amid the thousands who were filing in, and waved.
They sat through more than two hours of performances and speeches before they got what they were after: a warm embrace that said everything was OK again.
As the program ended, Manuel Larranaga Jr. climbed over a railing to hold his mother, father and other relatives in his arms.
"The deployment was easy, but missing home was the biggest thing," said Manuel Jr., who hopes to enter law enforcement. "I can't wait to finally get home. And tonight, I'll be going there in my own vehicle."
The day was filled with joyous reunions. Nicole Yates, 25, of Burlington Township, screamed as her husband's unit entered the arena. She and the couple's 15-month-old son, Kiem Robinson Jr., had been patient for months. "This is a big day," she said.
Spec. Kiem Robinson, 31, joined his family in the stands and seemed happily surprised by the outpouring of support. "I didn't expect anything like this," he said.
The soldiers were warmly received from the moment they began to assemble at the Statehouse. Spectators lined up - sometimes 10 to 20 deep - on State Street as the units marched by. Onlookers waved U.S. flags, and held up signs that said "Thank you," "Welcome home," and "We're so proud of you."
"It's a historic occasion," said Barbara Thompson of Lumberton, who traveled here on the River Line with A. Paulette Birchett of Mount Holly to see the parade, though neither knew any of the soldiers.
"I'm here to support," Birchett said of the return of the largest New Jersey National Guard deployment since World War II.
At the arena, Jo-Anne Rizzo of Pitman waited for her 41-year-old husband with a sign: "Our Hero Is Home - Hooah. 1SG Mark Rizzo."
"I'm just proud and glad that everybody came home," said Rizzo, who attended with the couple's son, Giavanni; mother-in-law Jackie Rizzo; and other relatives.
"I want to play video games and sports games with him," said 11-year-old Giavanni.
In the arena, while the soldiers waited outside, emcee Joe Henry, a radio personality, alerted the families and friends: "Ladies and gentlemen, the time is finally here. It's time to welcome home our heroes."
The name of each unit in the brigade was announced and greeted with cheers and applause as the recorded music rose to a crescendo. The soldiers passed by the stands and some shook hands with people who reached out to them. Chants of "U.S.A." filled the cavernous space.
"Let 'em hear it!" Henry instructed the cheering crowd.
"You did an outstanding job!" said Maj. Gen. Glenn Rieth, the state's adjutant general, in comments to the soldiers. "We have reunited every one of our soldiers with their families."
During a brief ceremony, Gov. Corzine was handed a New Jersey flag that flew over Iraq and he told the Guard members that he "couldn't be more proud" of their service.
"This is a wonderful day, this is a happy day," said Corzine. "God bless you and God bless America."