Families of 101st Airborne Division soldiers waved American flags and yelled “thank you” as the division’s first planeload of troops from Iraq stepped off the plane Wednesday after nearly a year at war.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Spc. Jason Chambers, 20, of Hallsville, Texas, his black poodle Duchess in his arms after embracing his girlfriend and parents a few minutes later.
Some 200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s “Screaming Eagles” said they were happy to be on American soil after a little less than a year in Iraq.
One young boy hugged his father’s knee as the tired and dirty, yet excited soldiers in desert uniforms stood in formation inside an airport hanger 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, battle-tested helmets landed with a thud on the ground as some soldiers darted to kiss their spouses. Other soldiers bowed their heads in thanks to pray with family.
First of 20,000
The soldiers are from the Fort Campbell-based division’s advance team. They are among the 600 soldiers arriving this week whose task is to prepare for the rest of the division’s 20,000 soldiers returning from Iraq in upcoming days.
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 apprehension of getting ambushed while traveling in convoys, and the difficulties of living in the sand. They described looking forward to steaks from Outback Steakhouse and hanging out with friends.
“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 Robinson, 30, who wore a white fur hat and dog tags with a picture of him etched on one side. She had told him she would not be able to come to the airfield.
Nearly year abroad
The division deployed in February and March to Kuwait, and later joined the invasion on Iraq on March 22. In its drive, 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.