After months of combat in Iraq, the deaths of two comrades, and the wounding of others, members of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team were more than ready for the peace and comfort of home - not to mention a good night's rest.
But their exhaustion after the long flight was overtaken by excitement as the 300 soldiers marched onto Fort Dix and saw their waiting families shortly after 4 a.m. yesterday.
The crowd of about 100 loved ones, many of whom had driven through the night, clapped and cheered from behind barriers at the Joint Training center building. Some held "Welcome Home!" banners, and at least three wives, including 25-year-old Brandi Deguia of Brownsville, Pa., cradled babies who were meeting their fathers for the first time.
Like a dam bursting, the disciplined ranks broke. Guard members rushed toward their fiancées and relatives, embracing, kissing, crying, and laughing with all the pent-up emotion of a year.
"Hi, it's Daddy!" said Sgt. Giancarlo Deguia, 24, his eyes welling as he introduced himself to 5-month-old Lucas. He hugged his wife and their 4-year-old daughter, Chloe.
"This is indescribable," said the sergeant, smiling broadly. "It's one of the greatest days in my life. I've been looking forward to this since I left."
"It's very exciting and emotional for us," added Brandi Deguia, as tears ran down her cheeks. "I was crying on the way here."
Giancarlo Deguia, a correctional officer in civilian life, was in the first wave of more than 4,000 returning members of the brigade, the only one of the Army's seven elite Stryker units within a Guard division. Yesterday's return of the troops, who left for Iraq in January, marked the beginning of the end for the largest Pennsylvania National Guard contingent sent into combat since World War II.
The 56th has headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia and has elements from armories across the state. Soldiers arriving yesterday were from units in Huntingdon, Altoona, Everett, and Hamburg. Others are expected to fly in this week, and all will be honored at official welcome-home parties from Erie to Philadelphia.
The reunions are a joyous time, said Giancarlo Deguia, as well as a moment of "remembrance for the guys still back there and the guys we lost."
Two brigade members were killed. Staff Sgt. Mark C. Baum, 32, of Quakertown, a corrections officer at the Bucks County prison, was hit by small-arms fire Feb. 21. Spec. Chad A. Edmondson, 20, of Williamsburg, near Altoona, was killed by an improvised bomb explosion May 27.
More than 40 others were injured in combat. At least 10 were awarded medals of valor.
"I was happy when I heard they landed in Germany," said Cheryl Booher, 34, a Mapleton resident, as she waited with 12-year-old daughter Cari and 8-year-old son Trey for Spec. James Booher. "I knew he was in safe territory."
Also celebrating was Booher's aunt, Carol Kurey, 48, who made the long drive from Mount Union with the wife and fiancée of two other soldiers.
They left Huntingdon County at 11:30 p.m., Kurey said about 4 a.m. yesterday. "I came for my niece's husband."
Cheryl Booher said her husband had a few home repairs and a lot of catching up to do. "He missed a sixth-grade graduation and the [Little League] baseball season," she said. "Our son made the all-stars."
As soldiers began to leave the formation, she spotted her husband and rushed to embrace him.
The reunion was "pretty awesome," said James Booher, who at home operates construction equipment for a contractor. "Some made the ultimate sacrifice, and guys got hurt, too. It was no joke."
The troops had two hours to visit their families before leaving on buses for their Fort Dix accommodations. Over the next week, they will finish medical checks and briefings on benefits, then return to their armories and homecoming celebrations.
"I'm mad," Cheryl Booher said. "I want more time."
The homecoming was especially jubilant for Sgt. John Deuter. His wife, Amy, 33, of Shippensburg, introduced him to their baby girl, Shelby.
John Deuter could not be present for the birth five months ago, but he witnessed it via the Internet. Several other men saw the births of their children in the same way.
"I found out I was pregnant a week after he was called to active duty," Amy Deuter said. "We had wanted a child for six years."
She said the couple's separation had been difficult but tolerable because they were able "to have pretty good contact. If I went four days without hearing from him, I would be worried."
Her parents stood by a large sign that read: "Welcome Home Sgt. John Deuter. We are Proud of Your Service. Love, Amy & Shelby."
"We missed him," said Amy Deuter's father, Chris Collins, 52, of Trevose. "He's a hell of a neat guy."
"We've been there for Amy while he was away," said her mother, Christine Collins, 56. "I was her coach for childbirth."
Once reunited, Amy Deuter nestled her head into her husband's shoulder and didn't want to move.
"You can't put it in words," said John Deuter, a state liquor-enforcement officer. "I have a brand-new daughter I hadn't seen before."
Other couples also appeared inseparable. Sgt. Matt Peck, 30, and wife Jackie, 26, of Warminster, were making up for missed hugs and kisses. "There is no substitute for being together," said Jackie Peck. "He left two months after we were married. We're thankful that he came home safely."
"It was a long, drawn-out process," said Matt Peck, a telecommunications technician. "It's great coming back from deployment."
The soldiers will have reentry adjustments. Yesterday, they turned in weapons that had become like appendages.
"I keep looking for my weapon," said Capt. Cory Angell, 36, who was part of an advance team that arrived a few days earlier. "We turn them in when we get here, but after living with a rifle for eight months or so, it's part of you.
"A lot of guys will feel a little odd at first, and that's natural, one of those things," he said. "It's part of coming back, changing gears."
Angell, a public-affairs spokesman, said he learned his wife was pregnant and had moved to Fredericksburg, Pa. He will be going to their new home - and will have a son in three weeks.
"The brigade will continue landing in sections over a period of three weeks and will be done by mid-September," he said. "Fort Dix has never looked so beautiful."