Glancing up from her ticket counter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (search), Sharon Whittington couldn't believe what she saw: her son, Army Reserve Spc. Adrian Dupree, home from Iraq.
Dupree and 191 other soldiers arrived home Friday for two weeks of R&R in the first wave of the military's largest home-leave program since the Vietnam War. But Whittington did not know her son would be among them.
"My knees just got totally weak," said Whittington, who works at the airport for Frontier Airlines. "And then I flew over the counter and just hugged my child for all I was worth. I've been missing my child since the day he left. I did a lot of praying since he's been gone, and now I feel like my prayers have been answered."
Arriving at 6 a.m., the soldiers entered the airport's international terminal with backpacks on their shoulders, sand-colored camouflage uniforms on their backs and big smiles on their faces. A dozen waiting relatives burst into applause.
After waving to TV cameras, soldiers rushed into the arms of their loved ones or to nearby pay phones. Others, like Dupree, wanted to surprise their families. All said they looked forward to home-cooked meals and a little extra sleep.
For Dupree, a 24-year-old Baltimore native stationed in Riverdale, the airport marked the end of a 16-hour trip that began Thursday and included a layover in Germany, where 78 soldiers got off for leave in Europe. Most of those who landed at Baltimore-Washington International planned to take connecting flights elsewhere.
"It's going to be pretty wild being home," said Dupree, a member of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command (search) in Baghdad. "Actually, I feel pretty normal right now — like I haven't even been away. But that's probably because I'm standing in the airport."
Dupree's fiancee, Mieasha Pompe, said the leave, though brief, was the end of a seven-month wait. "From the day he left to right now, I've been missing him and waiting to see him again," she said.
The program was ordered to provide relief and boost morale for forces serving 12-month tours in the hot, dangerous and sometimes primitive conditions in Iraq, as well as those in support roles in neighboring countries. That means it's available to the vast majority of the more than 130,000 troops deployed there, officials said.
The program offers 15-day vacations, with some transportation paid.
The government pays for the flights to Germany and Baltimore. Troops continuing on from there to their homes or other places will cover that expense. Eventually the military hopes to have flights to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles.
Yearlong rotations were ordered during the summer for most troops as violent resistance to the occupation mounted and the Bush administration found little success in getting more nations to contribute forces.
The subject of deployment lengths has been sensitive, with some soldiers and their families complaining bitterly about delayed homecomings and extended tours.
"First of all, rest and recuperation is essential just because what they're being asked to do is pretty darn difficult," said Marine Maj. Pete Mitchell, a Central Command (search) spokesman. "But it's more than that; we also believe rest and recuperation will improve readiness."
Bob Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation (search), took an opposite view, saying he recalls a disproportionate number of casualties among those back from leave in Vietnam. He said troops go through a rigorous and intense period preparing for deployment, then take time to adapt to a combat zone.
"To get yanked out of that is such a trip in your own head ... it makes it really hard to come back in," he said. "It was sort of like you broke stride. ... You're distracted."
Still, he said, he would never say he was against giving leaves.
"My memory of my R&R experience is very vivid," said Muller, who served with the Marines in the late 1960s. "The night before departure was just raucous, exuberant, everybody was pumped. A week later, coming back, nobody said a word — and I mean it was absolute stone silence."
Soldiers arriving Friday said they were happy to be home, no matter how short the leave.
Pfc. James Short, 23, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., cradled his 8-week-old daughter in the airport, saying simply, "It feels great."