SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of anxious family members and friends converged Thursday morning on the Utah Air National Guard Base to welcome home the 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment from Afghanistan.
About 150 of the 300 troops arrived home Thursday, with the battalion's other half expected to arrive Sunday. The soldiers had been in Fort Hood, Texas, since early this week for demobilization.
There were some tears but mostly smiles for the soldiers and families who reunited after a yearlong separation. The unit was deployed in January 2012 to provide armed air escort for U.S. and coalition forces.
"It's been a long year," said Kaybi Zesiger, who welcomed home her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike Zesiger, of Taylorsville, who just completed his third tour of active duty as an Apache helicopter pilot. "We're really happy to get him home."
Kaybi Zesiger had been dutifully measuring how much their son and daughter, ages 6 and 3, grew while their father was away.
"They both grew 5 inches while he was gone, so it's exciting for him to finally them," she said.
As the returning soldiers got away from the bitter cold and into the airplane hanger, they were greeted by refreshments and live rock 'n' roll from volunteers on the base. Several families brought posters and held them high as the guardsmen exited the plane.
"I love the Army for the camaraderie it has," Brooke Jewkes said while she waited for her husband, Andrew, to arrive. "Everybody here knows what we're all going through. I've had some really great support. That's what this return party is, a whole support system coming together."
Zesiger said the atmosphere could not have been more different from the unit's departure a year earlier.
"When they go, it's like everyone is wearing a wet blanket. Now, you can hear the excitement. You can almost touch it," she said.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jared Jones returned to his wife from a tour of duty in Afghanistan for the second time in their marriage. This time, he said, was even sweeter.
"We didn't have any kids then," Jones said. "It's definitely a different experience getting deployed the second time around with your kids waiting for 'DaDa' to come back."
Jones was deployed with his father, and they even flew Apache helicopters together on combat missions. Now, he has the chance to see his own kids every day, something he says he has been visualizing for a long time.
"I've been looking forward to this day for a year now," Jones said. "They just bring me so much joy. I just miss having kids around in my life."
Some welcome groups celebrated with rituals they developed while their loved ones were deployed. Sgt. Travis Taylor, who worked with ammunition while he was stationed, posed for pictures with his brother before toasting each other with Mexican-style Coca-Cola bottles. The pair had purchased two 12-packs before Taylor left, promising to drink one bottle each month as a symbolic countdown.
"I was sitting on the plane nervous, wondering what it would be like coming out here," Taylor said. "But it's been awesome. It's just a huge relief. … Being away from the family and the ones I love for the last 12 months has been hard, but today has made it more than worth it."
Jan Williams was there to see her son, Cody, who served as a flight specialist and has plans for on a long-term career as a helicopter pilot.
"It's a feeling of overwhelming relief and happiness that he's home and safe," Williams said. "It's been an eye-opening experience. Here you see all these families and soldiers affected by this deployment, and we're only a tiny fraction (of the military). These people give up a year of their life for us to live the way we do."