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There’s no place like home.

Cynics may roll their eyes when Judy Garland speaks those famous words near the end of “The Wizard of Oz.” But to the sand-blasted, sun-blistered soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, there is not the slightest doubt that it is true.

I can testify first-hand. For the first time in nine weeks, I am writing from the comfort of a German house, with my wife in the next room and two cats nuzzling at my elbow.

Journalists may share some of the hardships and a bit of the danger of a soldier’s life, but they also can leave when they wish.

I spent that time with the men and women of the 11th Aviation Regiment from Illesheim, Germany, whose units have worked hard and stayed sharp under poor living conditions and with little contact from home. In Iraq, they had no e-mail or telephone and minimal mail service.

The idle chatter on the front lines about going home turned into furious speculation after Baghdad surrendered. Hostile fire all but ended earlier this week, and the longing for home turned into something like a physical need.

When they found out I was leaving, at least a dozen soldiers asked if they could climb in one of my bags. I’m not sure all of them were joking.

These soldiers have spent months of eating bland camp food, taking care of bodily functions in open trenches or crude outhouses, enduring long stretches of boredom punctuated by short bursts of heart-twisting fear.

One young E-4 told me earlier this week she had dreamed she went to a restaurant, with a gigantic table spread with all of her favorite foods. Just as she was about to eat, she woke up to find herself on the same back-bending cot in the same dusty tent. She went back to sleep and dreamed of a table spread with all her favorite beers and wines, then woke up again — her dream, once again, cruelly dashed.

Many poke fun at their own plight, but even now there isn’t much serious griping. They know their aviation unit has stayed mostly out of harm’s way.

Every soldier I spoke with expressed thanks for a tent to sleep in and a steady supply of food and water.

Still, the desire to go home gets greater as there is less fighting to do.

Some of the squadron commanders have come up with training missions to keep idle pilots busy. Even staff officers racked up some career-boosting combat hours.

While everyone is anxious to return to “The World,” the soldiers of the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment want it especially badly. Most of the units fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom got there in late January or early February, but the 2-6 Cavalry arrived in October. This week they noted (but hardly celebrated) the six-month anniversary of their deployment.

V Corps commanders have pledged since the 2-6 Cavalry arrived first, it also will go home first. But earlier this week, the squadron got orders to pack up and move to a former Iraqi air base north of Baghdad. Other aviation units are to follow later. The prospect of seeing the Iraqi capital during the convoy ride to their new home offered little comfort to those who had hoped their next move would be south, to pack up for Germany.

A few days later, though, the soldiers got the news they had waited so long to hear. Instead of moving north, they’d be moving south, to the port at Kuwait City. They will pack up their gear on ships and head home. It will take awhile, but the end is in sight.

The USS Kitty Hawk battle group is headed home to Yokosuka, Japan, for a delayed homecoming, but without a pilot who died in combat. Other forward-deployed units will follow before long.

What should comfort families in Europe and the Pacific is that there are so few losses to mourn. Almost all of the soldiers, sailors and airmen and Marines who left their forward-deployed units will get home safely soon enough. We’re lucky many bear a special duty to help those few who won’t be welcoming home their loved ones.

Stars and Stripes reporters are not warriors themselves, but we are fortunate that we get to see American servicemembers up close, in peacetime as well as war. While in Iraq, I read a book of columns by World War II correspondent, Ernie Pyle. His final column from Europe, written three months after the Normandy invasion, summed up my mixed feelings about coming home:

“I cannot help but feel bad about leaving. Even hating the whole business as much as I do, you come to be a part of it. And you leave some of yourself here when you depart. Being with the American soldier has been a rich experience.

“To the thousands of them I know personally and the other hundreds of thousands for whom I have had the humble privilege of being a mouthpiece, this then is to say goodbye — and good luck.”

Pyle was killed by a sniper in Okinawa at the end of war, and did not get to see the joyous homecomings that would follow. I expect to meet many of the family members who showered me with e-mail messages supporting the troops, and to see those happy reunions with their loved ones.

There really is no place like home.

Stripes in 7

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