Scores of Valley families rejoiced Thursday in receiving early Christmas gifts: Wrapped in desert camouflage were their sons, husbands and fathers — all members of the Arizona Army National Guard, back from the Middle East.
The 2nd Battalion, 180th Field Artillery spent the last year in Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq after the unit’s activation for Operation Iraqi Freedom in October 2004. Although many Guardsmen from the unit returned to Arizona for Christmas last year, no one was taking this homecoming for granted.
Capt. Paul Ellis of Chandler said he knew two weeks ago of the plans to bring the group home, "but until the (airplane’s) wheels go up it doesn’t matter."
But any concerns about missing Christmas at home evaporated at 9:30 a.m. when white buses pulled into the Papago Park Military Reservation. The 100 soldiers then entered the Pettycrew Armory, where their families awaited them.
With a minimum of pomp, the troops were dismissed and the celebration was on.
"Best present I could ask for," said Mesa resident Sara Hill, 29. By her side for the first time in months was her husband, Sgt. John Hill.
"This is the only gift, the best gift," said Sgt. 1st Class Dan Vander Molen.
"Now he gets to take me shopping," said Vander Molen’s 12-year-old daughter, Harmony, while wearing her father’s cap.
Sgt. Chris Wallace, 36, of Chandler was even more appreciative than his peers, considering he was denied Christmas leave last year because of training for his duties as a medic. "To know I wasn’t missing two was awesome," he said.
Seventy-one other Guardsmen from Tucson were reunited with their families later Thursday. Other families with loved ones in the group must wait until Christmas Eve to celebrate; about 40 members are due back from Iraq that night, Maj. Paul Aguirre said.
More than 600 Arizona Army and Air National Guardsmen and women are still serving in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and within the United States.
During the group’s tour of duty, most of its energy was devoted to escorting convoys of soldiers to and from Kuwaiti bases. There were 6,000 of these escort missions, according to Guard officials.
Soldiers also provided security at Central Command Headquarters (Forward) in Qatar, and a few were deployed to Mosul, Iraq.
The men’s plans for the short term didn’t vary much: Relax, catch up with the family, relax some more.
After that, it’s back to the real world.
First Sgt. Lyle Jones, 41, of Chandler said it was time to put his law degree to work. He graduated from Arizona State University’s College of Law in May 2004, only to be called to duty a few months after.
"I’m going to take the bar exam somewhere and go into private practice, I hope," said Jones, escorted by his parents, wife and three children.
"In other words," said his mother, Nava, "he’s going to look for a job."