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Makayla Simonds, 9, reacts as buses carrying her dad, Sgt. Phil Simonds, and about 200 other soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company arrive at Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, on Thursday evening. The soldiers were returning from a deployment to Iraq. She was there to meet dad with her mom, Barb and little brother, Tyler.
Makayla Simonds, 9, reacts as buses carrying her dad, Sgt. Phil Simonds, and about 200 other soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company arrive at Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, on Thursday evening. The soldiers were returning from a deployment to Iraq. She was there to meet dad with her mom, Barb and little brother, Tyler. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Makayla Simonds, 9, reacts as buses carrying her dad, Sgt. Phil Simonds, and about 200 other soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company arrive at Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, on Thursday evening. The soldiers were returning from a deployment to Iraq. She was there to meet dad with her mom, Barb and little brother, Tyler.
Makayla Simonds, 9, reacts as buses carrying her dad, Sgt. Phil Simonds, and about 200 other soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company arrive at Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, on Thursday evening. The soldiers were returning from a deployment to Iraq. She was there to meet dad with her mom, Barb and little brother, Tyler. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Eightteen-month-old Niklas Tychnowitz gets a good look at dad, Stephen, after the staff sergeant and about 200 other soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company returned to Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, from their Iraq deployment on Thursday evening. Mom Nadine was there with Niklas to meet Dad.
Eightteen-month-old Niklas Tychnowitz gets a good look at dad, Stephen, after the staff sergeant and about 200 other soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company returned to Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, from their Iraq deployment on Thursday evening. Mom Nadine was there with Niklas to meet Dad. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Family members and friends wave flags and cheer, as buses carrying about 200 soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company arrive at Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, on Thursday evening. The soldiers were returning from a deployment to Iraq.
Family members and friends wave flags and cheer, as buses carrying about 200 soldiers of the 596th Maintenance Company arrive at Kelley Barracks in Darmstadt, Germany, on Thursday evening. The soldiers were returning from a deployment to Iraq. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

DARMSTADT, Germany — Aiden Bagby’s head is a follicular testament to the changes a year can bring.

“He had hair like mine when we left,” his father, Sgt. Joe Bagby, said, laughing and lifting off his hat to reveal his perfectly bald head.

When Bagby left for Iraq a year ago, his young son wasn’t just a cue ball. He couldn’t walk or talk either.

Now, 2-year-old Aiden runs everywhere, goes out of his way to chat with strangers, and his head is covered in a dirty-blond mop of curls.

“He grew up a lot,” Bagby said as he held Aiden on Thursday evening, moments after his yearlong deployment to Iraq officially ended. “I didn’t get to see a lot of things: first words; first steps — hard things to miss.”

Bagby and the rest of the 596th Maintenance Company — roughly 200 soldiers strong — returned Thursday to Kelley Barracks, where last September the unit boarded a small fleet of buses for the first leg of its journey to Iraq. It was the last major unit to deploy from Darmstadt, which is scheduled to close next year.

The soldiers returned in the same fashion they left, led by a military police car with flashing lights and blaring sirens. A small crowd of family members, some crying, some screaming, lined the street as the buses drove by on their way to drop off their cargo of men, women, weapons and gear.

Some soldiers looked out the windows, trying to catch glimpses of their families, but most appeared to look at the seat in front of them, their faces straight.

Almost an hour later, the soldiers stood in formation with their families in front of them, staring. Lt. Col. Christopher Benoit, commander of the 28th Transportation Battalion, announced that he had two speeches; one was 30 seconds long, the other, 12 pages.

Without being prompted for an opinion on which they’d rather hear, the family members, eager for the reunion, barked, “the 30-second speech.”

Benoit relented.

Faith Mitchell and her sister, Hope, were 2 months old when their father, Staff Sgt. Willie S. Mitchell Jr., left with the 596th. The reunion with their father could just as easily have been their first meeting.

Johnnie Mitchell, the twins’ mother, was pretty sure they’d recognize their daddy when they saw him again — but she wasn’t certain.

“I think they’ll know who it is, because we have pictures all over the house,” she said as she waited along with scores of other families for the soldiers to return. “I’m hoping they do,” she said, laughing.

Mitchell seemed happy enough just to have his family back.

“Hey, Mamma,” he said, holding his two youngest children, one twin in each arm. “Hiyiyiyiyi,” Faith said after her mother urged her to say “hi” to Daddy.

Mitchell’s 11-year-old daughter, Justice, clung to his waist. His 8-year-old son, Justin, kept an eye on his father and sneaked in a hug every now and then.

Asked what he was most looking forward to now that he was back from Iraq, Mitchell said simply, “This.”

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