They left for training a year ago and spent the last nine months in Iraq. They guarded detainees, provided convoy security, and helped guide Iraq's transition to a fledgling republic.
Now every member of the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team - more than 2,800 soldiers - has come home, safe and sound, to a hero's welcome.
With Blackhawk helicopters circling overhead and artillery booming nearby, the soldiers will march a mile tomorrow morning from the Statehouse in downtown Trenton to Sovereign Bank Arena, where they will be thanked during ceremonies.
"For the past year, New Jersey's brave men and women put their lives on hold to honorably serve our country," Gov. Corzine said in a statement. "We are happy to have all of them home safely now, and we honor the sacrifices they and their families have made for a proud state and nation."
The 50th's deployment was the largest involving the state's National Guard since World War II. Its soldiers range in age from 19 to 59 and come from every county, including 217 from Burlington County, 208 from Camden County, and 164 from Gloucester County.
Most are white, but African Americans and Hispanics are well-represented in the ranks. About 250 are women, some of whom - for the first time in the history of the New Jersey Guard - were assigned to infantry battalions, serving in logistics and administrative positions.
"The soldiers of the brigade - and the families who supported them during this long but successful deployment - are truly American heroes," said Maj. Gen. Glenn Rieth, the state's adjutant general. "We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their selfless service."
More than 25 percent of the unit had previously been to Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, or the Sinai Peninsula. Some volunteered from other units to "finish the job" and share their experience with first-timers.
"For the capital city and its residents, it is our heartfelt privilege to personally express the deep gratitude we feel," Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer said.
"We also want to make clear to the families and loved ones just how fully we appreciate the sacrifices that they had to endure and the importance of the support they have provided."
The public's support sustained the troops during their mission, said First Lt. Ryan Bailey, 27, of Vineland.
It was, "frankly, overwhelming," the scout platoon leader said. For "the outpouring of support vis-a-vis cards, care packages, cookies, thank you. It's truly awe-inspiring.
"Only in operations like this does one get to experience, firsthand, the true patriotic strength and humanity that I, personally, feel makes America the greatest land on our earth," said Bailey, who missed the birth of his son while training in Texas last summer.
The soldiers have returned with vivid memories. "What will stay with me the most are the extreme temperature swings, not only seasonal but daily. And the abrupt changes in weather - sudden dust storms and rainfall," said Capt. Eric Frenzke, 39, of Hamilton, Mercer County.
But "after a few days getting back into old routines, it will almost seem like I was never gone," he said.
"My wife and I had difficulty adjusting after our first deployment together. However, we're applying lessons learned and are already discussing expectations when I come home. . . . It's not just me who will be readjusting, but my family as well."
Frenzke said he had missed a year of seeing his children grow. "My son is looking forward to spending 'guy time' with me when I come home almost as much as I am looking forward to spending time with him," said the captain, who anticipates "bare feet in my grass, baseball games, the beach only because there's water there, friends, family, and golf.
"I'm also looking forward to a real Philly steak sandwich, pizza from a pizza parlor, and genuine Chinese food."
First Sgt. Mark Rizzo, who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, said he wanted to get back to his routine at home.
"Of course, the most important thing that I have missed is just being with my wife, Jo Anne, and children and seeing them every day," said Rizzo, 41, of Pitman.
But there is something else he gave up, Rizzo said. "I have season tickets to the Phillies games with my brother Paul, and it took me to come to Iraq for them to win the first World Series in 28 years."
What he won't miss: "If I don't see sand and gravel for another five years, I will be happy."
Since the troops arrived Stateside - some as early as mid-May - a number have been visited briefly by their loved ones. Now their families are waiting for them to pass through the demobilization process.
"He kept his promise to us to come home safely," 60-year-old Robert Kranich said of his son-in-law, Maj. Robert Hughes. Both live in Manahawkin. "I'm really proud of him and all of those guys"
The work of the 50th has received the praise of Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of all U.S. military forces in Iraq. Odierno, a New Jersey native, called the unit his "homeboys."
"The soldiers of the 50th IBCT are the homeboys - and homegirls - of every New Jerseyean," Rieth added. "The soldiers are truly New Jersey's hometown team."