ALEXANDRIA, La. – Greeted by the blasts of water cannon, the first planeload of 100 Louisiana National Guardsmen (search) returned home Friday from Iraq, leaving behind the carnage of warfare to find their families in their hurricane-ravaged state.
As soon as the plane touched down, the troops clapped and yelled, "Yeah!"
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome home!" a flight attendant announced on the P.A. system. "We're glad you're home safe."
After the plane touched down here following a flight from Kuwait and stopovers in Europe and Maine, a pair of green fire trucks blasted the Boeing 757 with water cannon as 50 to 60 people clapped and held banners saying "Welcome home troops."
The soldiers clambered down the stairs and were greeted by Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search), who shook their hands and said, "Welcome home, men."
"Let me say for the citizens of Louisiana: 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' I wish this could have been a better place to come to," she continued, adding: "We can come back, we will come back. We'll be better and stronger."
Most of the soldiers lost everything to Hurricane Katrina, and will qualify for safe haven status, in which they will get a 14-day leave and then be eligible for demobilization.
"We're offering them the opportunity to continue to serve in the Guard and help us rebuild southeast Louisiana," Blanco said. "That will keep them employed. This will be an opportunity to tide them over."
Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau said the Guard would help them find housing, and the soldiers would be allowed to go to New Orleans as soon as it was safe.
Earlier, the plane stopped in Bangor, Maine, where the soldiers went through Customs. At Bangor airport, elderly members of a U.S. veterans group waved flags and offered the soldiers cell phones and chocolate chip cookies.
After seeing 35 of their number killed in Iraq, members of the 256th Brigade Combat Team (search) readied to take care of relatives made refugees, or, perhaps, mourn family members killed or hurt by the hurricane and its devastating aftermath.
For Spc. Nathan Faust of Chalmette it's a total loss. His family home is flooded to the peak of the roof. His fiancee's home in Plaquemines Parish is at least as devastated. He said his uncle, the warden at the Orleans Parish jail, was trapped in his office by riots for 30 hours in knee-deep water.
"All my stuff, all my family, everyone's homeless," said Faust, his worry-lined face making him appear older than his 23 years. "I want to move out of the city and start over someplace else. I can't put my life on hold for two years and wait for the city to get back on its feet."
The 100 returnees were mainly soldiers from the New Orleans-based 1st Battalion, 141st Field Artillery Regiment (search), which left Kuwait on Thursday night on a charter flight. The few hundred remaining battalion members are expected to fly home from Kuwait soon.
Since Katrina struck, soldiers knew their homecoming would be trading one disaster zone for another.
"Bittersweet isn't the word for it. It's worse," said Sgt. Joe Partin, 34, of Harahan.
Before their flight, the soldiers were processed out of the war zone at Camp Victory, Kuwait. A U.S. Navy customs official who briefed the glum Louisianans tried to whip up some fervor for their flight home.
"Are you all happy to go home?" the Customs agent yelled. A few troops replied with a halfhearted "hoo-ah," the Army's rallying cry. The agent tried again, louder, and failed to raise enthusiasm.
"I'm going to be in your place in 2 1/2 months and I'm going to be going nuts," he admonished the Guardsmen.
Later, when informed he was addressing troops from New Orleans, he apologized, Partin said.
"Normally, we'd be yelling and screaming," Partin said in an interview aboard the plane.
Partin, like everyone else, had been gearing to celebrate his homecoming with friends and family. Now those people are scattered, some of them hundreds of miles away.
"We were so pumped up, so high, so ready to see our families and friends," said the soldier, his head shaved, feet tucked under a camouflage blanket. "We all wanted to go back to a sense of normalcy.
Now we're going back to chaos. It's very anticlimactic."
The chartered plane stopped in Budapest to change crews and then in Shannon, Ireland, to refuel.
Soldiers streamed into Shannon's airport bar and ordered pints of draft beer and glasses of cognac — their first drinks in almost a year. Some gathered around a television showing their devastated city.
Sgt. Charles Unruh, 24, and Pvt. Larry Alston, 35, carried beers in one hand and double-shots of cognac in the other.
"To the big dogs," Alston said with a growl as the pair clinked glasses and drank.
"It's been six months for me," Unruh said, sipping his beer.
Nearby, Sgt. Andrew Hines, 26, of New Orleans and Sgt. Johan Mackay, 25, of Kenner, toasted with pints of beer.
"To a safe flight home," said Mackay. Told it was time to reboard, Mackay said "Happy Mardi Gras" and gulped his beer.
Both men said their families had fled New Orleans — Hines' to North Carolina and Mackay's to Houston. Neither soldier was certain where he would live on return.
"They still can't locate one of my aunts. But she's OK, we think," said Mackay, who swaggered with a burly weightlifter's build. Mackay said he'd had enough of Army life for a while.
"I'm done. I love the Army, but I did my time," he said. Mackay said Guardsmen who hadn't served time in Iraq were better suited to the hurricane relief duties that many believe await the returning unit.
The hurricane, Faust said, "was like a bad dream." He had been looking forward to getting back to work, working toward his bachelor's degree, and perhaps going to law school after graduation.
He planned to marry his fiancee in Southern Oaks, a big wedding hall on the shore of Lake Ponchartrain.
"That place is under water. My fiancee's wedding dress is underwater," Faust said. "It's all surreal. I figure we'll go to a justice of the peace and when life gets back to normal we'll have a big wedding."