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(Click here for photos from the celebration)

VICENZA, Italy — Despite the sweltering heat, the mood was festive Wednesday during a welcome-home celebration here for soldiers of Combined Joint Task Force-76 at Caserma Ederle.

The soldiers — whose numbers were largely comprised of the Vicenza-based 173rd Airborne Brigade and led by the Southern European Task Force — recently returned from a yearlong tour in Afghanistan.

But this week, with festivities beginning Monday, many soldiers seemed ready and able to think about things other than combat.

At the base’s parade field, soldiers and their families ate hot dogs, watched free concerts by Master P and Lee Ann Womack, and participated in all sorts of games that epitomize the leisure of summertime.

While many of the deployed soldiers returned earlier this year, the formal celebration was withheld until everyone could enjoy the festivities, said Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Lane, a 173rd spokesman.

“We wanted to make sure to get everyone back,” he said. “June 14 is also a really appropriate day, the Army’s birthday, and it’s now the day we truly welcomed home our forces from downrange.”

After an opening ceremony Wednesday, where the task force’s 18 deaths during the deployment were remembered, military personnel and families lounged about and took in a variety of diversions, including mud volleyball, races and other activities made a bit more arduous with the midday heat.

With free concerts by Master P and Lee Ann Womack still hours away, Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, commander of the Southern European Task Force, watched some of his troops as they fought with pugil sticks over a pool of mud on Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s great to see the families coming out,” Kamiya said, adding that this was the first time that the local Morale, Welfare and Recreation department had put on such an extensive event.

As he watched, Kamiya said he would not be taking up a pugil stick for the duel above the mud pit.

“There are too many folks here,” he said.

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