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European edition, Sunday, September 23, 2007

KATTERBACH, Germany — The crowd inside Hangar 5 was anxious prior to the soldiers’ arrival.

Many were dressed in style; no sweats and T-shirts were to be seen.

“Nerve-racking, exciting,” said Jennifer Scott, wife of Staff Sgt. Michael Scott. “The last time (Michael) saw me I was fat and flabby after having him,” she said, motioning to their 7-month-old son, William.

Michael Scott was among 119 soldiers who returned Friday to Katterbach from deployment to Iraq. The troops, from Company C, 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, an air ambulance unit, had served there for one year.

Mom and baby weren’t the only changes awaiting the soldier. The couple’s daughter, Shyla, piped in to say she had changed, too.

“The last time he saw me I was eight years old,” said Shyla, now 9 and proud of it — as well as two inches taller and four shoe sizes bigger.

Some wives brought children in the form of man’s best friend.

Rebecca Welo wondered if Tyson, a 3-year-old boxer, would recognize his master, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Hanz Welo.

“I would let (Hanz) look at Tyson on the Webcam, and Tyson will kind of sniff at it,” Rebecca Welo said. “And when Tyson would hear his voice, he would kind of cock his head.”

The big reunion moment happened inside a cavernous helicopter hangar that was decorated with dozens of welcome-home signs.

Friends and family sat on bleachers or stood. After the soldiers were brought by bus to the hangar, the doors were slid open and the soldiers marched inside to the cheers of the awaiting crowd.

Many of them were based at Al Asad, a former Iraqi air base 130 miles west of Baghdad.

The pilots, medics and crew flew 1,967 missions, including about 500 point-of-injury missions, where they went to the scene of a roadside bomb, auto accident or other incident to evacuate the wounded.

They were supported by communications specialists, cooks, mechanics and fuelers, who helped keep the company’s 12 UH-60A Blackhawk helicopters in business. The company suffered no deaths during the deployment.

“We helped a lot of people, and that’s what it’s about,” said Spc. Michael Casteel, a flight medic from Galveston, Texas. “We picked up God knows how many Iraqi civilians and kids.”

Among them was a 4-month-old girl, wounded by shrapnel to her head and neck, whom he helped treat aboard a helicopter en route to a Baghdad hospital, Casteel said.

“She was so small, they didn’t even put her on a litter,” Casteel said. “She was just wrapped in a blanket.”

The girl ended up surviving. Her parents were believed to have been killed.

After the company was dismissed, many of soldiers and their waiting spouses and children ran together. They hugged and kissed and kissed some more.

Single soldiers such as Spcs. Christian Peter of Bartow, Fla., and Chris Allen of Spokane, Wash., just stood and watched.

“The people I was with in Iraq — all the single soldiers — we’re all like one big family,” Peaster said.

“We hugged each other,” Allen added.


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