FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Dusty and tired after nearly a year at war, the first 200 or so members of the 101st Airborne Division (search) to come home from Iraq cuddled their loved ones and bowed their heads in thanks Wednesday.
"This was a hard deployment. It's great to be home," said Sgt. Robert Robinson, 25, of Detroit, who was surprised to be met by his bride, Charisse, who wore a white fur hat and dog tags with a picture of him etched on one side.
One little boy hugged his father's knee as the tired and dirty soldiers in desert uniforms stood in formation inside an airport hangar to receive a word of thanks for their service from retired Brig. Gen. J.W. Noles.
"Welcome to the real world," Noles said.
With that, many of the soldiers dropped their battle-tested helmets with a thud and ran off to kiss their loved ones. Others bowed their heads in a prayer of thanks.
"I just wanted to have it done," said Robinson, who spent eight months in Afghanistan before leaving shortly thereafter for Iraq. He and his wife dated three months before he was deployed, and they married while he was home on leave in October.
"I'll go anywhere with him," his wife said. "We can be home for all I care, just me and him."
The members of the division's Screaming Eagle team (search) were among 600 soldiers arriving this week. The 101st is part of the first wave of troops to return home in the first half of the year after completing one-year tours.
The soldiers spoke of their constant fear of getting ambushed while traveling in convoys, and the difficulties of living in the sand. They described looking forward to eating steaks and hanging out with friends.
Spc. Jason Chambers, 20, of Hallsville, Texas, joked about the rough language he picked up. "Being around these guys changes you a lot. I'm going to have to start watching my words," Chambers said, his girlfriend by his side.
The division was sent in to Kuwait in February and March and later joined the invasion on Iraq on March 22. It took the central Iraq cities of Najaf, Hillah and Karbala before occupying southern Baghdad.
Since April, it has controlled northern Iraq. It has faced guerrilla attacks and other strife -- including the Nov. 17 collision of two helicopters that may have been maneuvering to avoid enemy fire. Seventeen soldiers were killed in the crash.
It is expected to take until April to get all the soldiers of the 101st and their equipment home to Fort Campbell, on the Tennessee line 50 miles north of Nashville.
Fifty-nine soldiers from Fort Campbell have been killed in the war -- 57 of them from the 101st. The post has had more deaths in Iraq than any other military unit.