FORT STEWART, Ga. — Squinting in the dark early Tuesday as she searched for her husband among scores of camouflage fatigues, Rachel Clark waved her homemade sign, “We Love Our Top Gun,” and blasted an air horn — a cry of relief that her citizen-soldier was home from a war zone.
Sgt. David Jeremy Clark scooped up his 3-year-old son, Logan, despite a back injury suffered during a car bombing as about 100 soldiers from the 48th Infantry Brigade arrived home to a rousing crowd at Fort Stewart.
The troops spent nearly a year in Afghanistan — the brigade’s second deployment in five years.
“It’s a lot better than I even thought,” the 29-year-old sergeant said of the homecoming, tears streaming as his young sons wrapped their arms around his knees. “I’ve been ready to see these two.”
Theirs was the first flight home for more than 3,000 Georgia Army National Guard troops who deployed last year to help train Afghan police and security forces. The rest will return in the coming weeks, with the final group expected in April.
Despite their arrival just before 2 a.m. Tuesday, the citizen-soldiers were rushed by spouses, children and parents with kisses, tears and bear hugs after the troops marched in formation toward their reunion on the parade grounds at Fort Stewart. The Army post is 40 miles southwest of Savannah.
“It’s been tough. He’s my first born,” Doreatha Moore of Ellabell said of her strapping son, Sgt. Marcus Smith, whose photos were plastered on five poster-board signs his family made for his return.
Smith, a 27-year-old student at Georgia Southern University, stood beaming while surrounded by his mother and younger sisters.
“It’s like words don’t describe it,” he said. “It’s great — clean air, pine trees and home-cooked food.”
The 48th Brigade is made up of citizen-soldiers from across Georgia — truck drivers and teachers, factory workers and policemen. Now, many of them are two-time war veterans.
The brigade also deployed to Iraq in 2005, with Clark among them.
Clark, an Offerman resident who drives a logging skidder when he’s not on military duty, had a close call several weeks ago.
A car bomb exploded at the gate of a U.S. military base in Kabul where he was serving, and the blast threw him against a wall and injured his back.
Roadside bombs killed most of the eight brigade soldiers who died during the deployment, said Georgia National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Ken Baldowski. But the number of casualties was far fewer than when the brigade lost 26 soldiers in Iraq five years ago.