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When the 4th Infantry Division officially returns from Iraq, family and friends will pack Fort Hood to celebrate.

Among those friends will be Bart Millard and the rest of MercyMe, on hand to perform during the Task Force Ironhorse Welcome Home Celebration on April 22 at the Texas base.

“We thought it would be a huge honor to support the troops,” Millard said. “With all that they’re doing, it’s something rather small. … How can you not want to support our troops?”

The platinum-selling band landed a ticket to the festivities by answering a simple e-mail request.

“It’s an amazing time that we’re living in right now and you want to do your part somehow,” Millard said. “Gosh, we’ve spent many nights praying for our troops and wondering what we can do.” Then the e-mail arrived.

The event will begin with a formal ceremony uncasing the division’s colors, marking its official return, said Lt. Col. Bill MacDonald of the 4th ID’s public affairs office. However, in the afternoon, the atmosphere will change. “It’s going to be a block-party-style atmosphere,” MacDonald said.

The division’s soldiers have spent the last year in northern Iraq, most notably helping to track and capture Saddam Hussein. Welcoming them home will be comedian Drew Carey and musicians Ludacris, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jessica Simpson, in addition to MercyMe and many others. About 50,000 soldiers, family and invited friends are expected to attend.

The Fort Hood event comes at an interesting time for MercyMe, whose “I Can Only Imagine” has become an unlikely mainstream hit.

Released in 2001, the song quickly became a Christian music favorite. However, the song’s popularity took a tremendous upswing because of a dare. The climb started when a shock jock said he’d do anything on the air. Someone challenged him to play “I Can Only Imagine.” Tremendous listener response prompted repeat spins. Word quickly spread to other radio stations.

“With all of the mainstream success it’s been really surreal and it’s something that we never dreamed would happen,” Millard said. “Especially with ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ which is such a blatantly Christian song.”

This newfound popularity helped MercyMe when it came time to hit the studio to record its next CD, “Undone.” “We have a little more money to spend on production,” Millard said.

The new disc, which will be released two days before the Fort Hood appearance, doesn’t represent “a huge stretch,” Millard said, but “there are some great moments on the record that mean a lot to us.” For example, “Homesick” is about Chris Street, Millard’s 20-year-old brother-in-law who died in an auto accident in January.

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