1 of 11
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Family members and friends scream as the aircraft carrying the Utah National Guard's 624th Engineer Company, 1457th Engineer Battalion returns to Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 25, 2013. Twenty-seven babies, 23 single births and two sets of twins, were born to wives of the soldiers during the unit’s yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
I didn't sleep at all last night. I'm just so excited. —Katy Gibbs, of Spanish Fork

SALT LAKE CITY The usual display of homemade posters, American flags and yellow ribbons were strewn across a crowd of eager family members awaiting the return of their soldiers Thursday.

"We've been waiting our whole lives to meet you," read one banner that was prominently displayed in the hangar at the Utah Air National Guard Base.

It wasn't the typical sentiment found at such homecomings.

The average age was a little younger this time, as 27 babies had been born while their fathers were away on a 12-month deployment of the Utah National Guard's 624th Engineer Company to Afghanistan.

"It took a lot of faith and taking it one day at a time," said Megan Franco, of Provo.

Franco endured a difficult pregnancy, including weeks of bed rest, and a touch-and-go delivery to bring little Joshua into the world six months ago, all while Spc. Jacom Franco served his country and kept in touch as often as possible using the Web.

The unit's nearly 140 soldiers hail from portions of Utah County, Vernal, Price and Springville. They left Utah in June and returned earlier than originally scheduled, just after noon Thursday, and not a minute too soon if you ask any of the new moms.

"I didn't sleep at all last night," said Katy Gibbs, of Spanish Fork, whose husband, Spc. Paul Gibbs witnessed the birth of their son via Skype a little more than two months ago. "I'm just so excited."

Upon holding 2-month-old Everett for the first time Thursday, Paul Gibbs said it felt like the end of a really long dream. "It was kind of like I never left."

"He's much smaller than I imagined," he said of his son. The only thing larger than life was the smile across his own face. "It's just amazing. I couldn't be happier."

Many of the new fathers, 15 of them first-timers, experienced the birth of their child with the help of Internet video and chat services, but the signals were choppy and sometimes unreliable, and "nothing can make up for the real thing," said Jacom Franco, who was realizing for the first time that he's now the father of not one but two young boys.

"It was hard not to be there and to hold her hand through it all," he said, adding that he can't wait to spend more time and "catch up" with his wife and family.

Spc. Matt Perea, of Price, couldn't put into words what it all meant to him to hold his 8-month-old daughter, Sienna, for the first time. The little gal was bedecked in red, white and blue for her father's homecoming, and tears streamed down her mother's face.

"I made it through this because of her," said Bethany Perea. "It just gave me someone else to love."

Sgt. Phillip Bassett came home to twins born while he was away. His eyes were fixed on the two boys as his wife, Kristina, ran toward him, and he immediately scooped them out of her arms.

"I've waited a long time to hold these little guys," he said. "I wanted to be there. I missed the whole newborn stage when they snuggled and laid on your chest. That was something I wanted to be there for."

Putting aside a playful wish for an uninterrupted 72-hour nap, Kristina Bassett said she was excited to have help with changing diapers and bath time.

"Life can get back to normal now. It feels like it was on pause for a long time," she said.

Her sentiment was felt by many of the military wives, some who had dressed up for the occasion. They leaned on each other while their husbands were away, using a central website to vent, talk or seek advice.

"It's been hard. I'm glad it is over," said Kaiti Manning, of Orem.

She said Spc. William Manning would sing to their baby on the phone while he was away. The couple hoped it would help to familiarize the now-3-month-old Mikayla with her dutiful daddy.

The first-time mom said she won't hold her newly returned husband to his repeated promise volunteering "to make me breakfast in bed every morning" but she is excited to have him help with the laundry, which has doubled in volume since his departure.

"I'm just overjoyed," she said. "And we're glad this happened when she is a baby and won't remember it and not when she's 5 and has to miss him."

While it was his first deployment and repeat assignments remain uncertain for the unit, she said her husband "is willing to do whatever he is asked for his country." She just hopes it won't be while the next Manning child is en route to the world.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com Twitter: wendyleonards