Many of the best stories that 75 Utah National Guard interrogators have to tell will likely remain classified by the government.
The group returned to Salt Lake City from Saudi Arabia Friday to a welcome much like the one showered on previous groups of troops returning from the gulf war. But battalion members, who worked around-the-clock questioning Iraqi prisoners, talked of being "Scud bait" and of walking freely, and without any weapons, among thousands of Iraqi prisoners - some in their teens and others old and walking with canes.The troops questioned prisoners at one of two prisoner interrogation centers within 100 miles of the Saudi/Kuwait border or at a document interpretation center in Dhahran.
While stationed in Saudi Arabia, they were forbidden to tell anyone back home where they were working or what kinds of questions they were asking the Iraqi prisoners. Some of those stories started to flow as the men and women clad in desert uniforms slowly made their way from the gate to the baggage claim area.
But unit commander Maj. Dee Snowball said many of the best stories are likely to remain classified. Much of the intelligence the group gathered was of the greatest value at the onset of the ground war. The value of other documents seized and information gathered will be useful to the allied military intelligence community for years to come, he said.
Everyone jammed into the "B" concourse at the Salt Lake International Airport Friday afternoon became part of the homecoming crowd.
Alice Schultz clutched her baby in one arm and held a camera up high to take pictures over the crowd of people. Her level of enthusiasm reflected that of the many waiting family members and friends - even though she and her family were just waiting for a flight to leave for San Francisco from the same gate. She knew none of the incoming troops.
"I'm from the Bay area. My husband and I have always planned to go and meet some of the returning soldiers - but now they've come to us," she said excitedly.
Current airport rules barring anyone without a ticket from entering the gate areas were suspended to allow families and friends to greet the troops as they got off the plane. The flight's one-hour delay in Denver only served to heighten the anxiety and enthusiasm level. The family support coordinator had to turn people away after running out of the 288 American flags she brought to distribute to waiting families.
The returning troops are with the 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion. They left Utah Jan. 6 to arrive in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, battalion members said, on the last commercial flight allowed in before the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
Returning interrogators say they won't feel the homecoming is complete until 16 linguists with the battalion - the first group of Army National Guard members to leave the state - come home. They were called up Aug. 24 and have been in Saudi Arabia since September.
Several members of the group that returned Friday said they saw their linguist counterparts while in Saudi Arabia - others did not. All expressed hope for their comrades' speedy return.
"It's like leaving the hospital without the baby," one woman said after the airport homecoming broke up.