Utah's 141st Military Intelligence Battalion flew home Saturday from Fort Carson, Colo., aboard three Utah Air National Guard planes to the cheers of hundreds of family members, friends and well-wishers.
The 110 troops, dressed in desert camouflage uniforms, landed in a snowstorm at the Air Guard base on the east side of Salt Lake City International Airport. A crowd of about 800 people waited inside a hangar for the three KC-135 refueling tankers, which came in about an hour later than expected because of weather conditions.
The tankers flew to Colorado to pick up the soldiers for their final leg home from Iraq. The battalion members have served more than a year in Iraq as linguists, interrogators and document translators. None of the battalion members were killed overseas.
Hangar doors were opened for the crowd minutes before the planes landed. Hundreds of people cheered as the doors slid open, and children and adults — many carrying welcome-home signs and flags — rushed to the red rope separating them from the flight line. Months of pent-up waiting was let loose in a roar from the crowd as the first plane appeared out of the snowstorm some 200 yards out with a large American flag flying from the cockpit window.
The family of Paul Holton, a k a "Chief Wiggles," who received international exposure for his efforts to help Iraqi children, was a favorite interview of the media during the wait inside the hangar. Holton maintained a Web site during his tour that attracted thousands of readers each day. His cousin, Steven Shepherd, flew in from Minnesota to welcome him home.
Holton said he started to cry when the plane landed and he saw the hundreds of people waiting for their kin and friends. "I was overwhelmed," he said. The 34-year Army veteran said more than $100,000 has been donated by people all over the country to buy toys for children and he plans now to see the money is spent appropriately. Also, three containers of toys are now aboard ships heading to Iraq.
"We'll continue on with the program. The kids in Iraq are wonderful, just like kids anywhere in the world," he said. At some point, he said, he has two years of taxes to fill out and put in the mail. His wife, Keeyeon, said for now, a quiet dinner at home Saturday night would do.
As it taxied by the hangar, a second plane, showing a large Utah flag, also received momentous applause and cheers. Two soldiers with video cameras shot the crowd as the plane rolled by. The third plane taxied to the line several minutes after the others, and the crowd moved down the rope to it in hopes of being reunited with its occupants.
Lisa Ward drove from Logan with 4-month-old daughter, Kaelee, and 10 nieces and two nephews, her parents and the parents of her returning husband, Matthew, who has been a student at Utah State University but for the past three semesters while serving in Iraq.
"I really haven't thought about what I'm going to say to him, I'm just thinking about giving him a big smooch," she said. As Ward connected with his family inside the hangar, he headed straight for Lisa holding Kaelee who, with her tiny right hand, scrunched the flowers her dad was holding while her parents embraced. A family support group at Fort Carson gave flowers to the soldiers.
Melinda Dedrickson, Salt Lake City, waited for husband, Paul. He has been in Iraq all but three months of their 15-month marriage. He served in Fallujah, west of Baghdad where communications were poor, adding to her stress. "I didn't hear from him much, rarely by phone and mostly by e-mails," she said.
Army National Guard Maj. Lorraine Januzelli said another 700 Utah Guardsmen are expected home during the next four months from the 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion, the 1457th Engineering Battalion and the 19th Special Forces Group.