By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/13/2005 11:21:02 AM ET 2005-05-13T15:21:02

Sgt.Terra Wheeler calls it heaven on earth. It’s actually Fort Hood, Texas - the base where Wheeler is stationed as a member of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.  

It feels like heaven because Wheeler has spent the last year stationed in Iraq.

She’s home now and part of a celebration at this central Texas military installation expected to include as many as 100,000 guests. “Tribute to our Heroes” is an all-day party for soldiers and their families at Fort Hood, about an hour’s drive north of Austin.

Day of tribute for soldiers
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world,” said Wheeler, an army mechanic. “I am so happy to have come back to my babies and we are going to celebrate.” Wheeler has three children, ages one, three and seven.

She says she often feared she wouldn’t see them again. “When you wake up in the morning to big explosions, you’re going to be scared. So, yes, we were afraid.  Then, you come back here and you just say… thank God.” Video: Fort Hood Homecoming

More than forty thousand soldiers who have trained at Fort Hood have served in Iraq. Some have served two assignments there. The tribute is planned as a day of fun for the soldiers and their children with events ranging from a fishing tournament to carnival rides to live music.

Fort Hood says it’s a way of thanking the troops and their families, all of whom have made sacrifices for Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Sgt. Mervin Wilson returned from Iraq in March. “Most of the welcome home signs are still up around here, even though some of us have been home a while,” said Wilson.

“It feels good that people are appreciative of us. Not just the party. I’ve been in a restaurant and people overhear me speaking about Iraq to someone else and when we go to pay our bills, they’re already covered. We never get to thank them. The acts of kindness towards us are overwhelming at times,” explained Wilson.

Fort Hood is the nation’s largest active duty armored post, covering more than 300 square miles. It’s a city in itself. Planners say they hope the concerts, the free food and the children’s events will give the large base kind of a small town atmosphere - a town thankful for the contributions of its citizens.

“I feel it,” said Sgt. Jean Paul, back from a year in Iraq. “This just makes me feel like my job is distinguished and the little bit that I sacrificed is more than a little bit to some people.”

Bittersweet homecoming
Fort Hood says the tribute is the largest welcome home celebration in the United States this year. Officials say more than half of the installation’s soldiers returned from a year long deployment within the past few months.

More than 2,000 soldiers from the base are currently serving in Iraq and many of those attending the tribute event will eventually serve again in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“There is some sadness,” said Spc. Joseph Jiminez. “Even before we left [Iraq], we knew we were coming back. I’ll return in 2006.” 

Jiminez says his time in Iraq was stressful, but also a learning experience. “Being apart from family was the hardest,” he said. “It was also something to grow on. I grew up in my job. I learned how to keep myself alive. There’s always that question in your mind; will I come back? I just tried to do my job and kept praying I’ll come back and here I am.”

Sadly, some troops have not had those prayers answered. Fort Hood reports 147 of its service people have died in Iraq since 2003.

Just glad to be home
Wheeler is grateful to be home safely. “Was I worried?” she asks. “Was I ever! I wanted to come back to my babies. I mean, you think about that more than anything. You have a family back home and they’re really worrying about you. And you just want to make it back safe.”

Wheeler is taking a day off from the job of being a busy mom and a soldier. She’s taking a day to play with her family at the celebration honoring her and the thousands of others at this Texas base who have so bravely served.

Janet Shamlian is an NBC News Correspondent, based in Dallas.

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