Holding flowers, balloons and handmade signs, family and friends filled Freedom Hall on Friday as 250 members of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division returned to Fort Benning from a nine-month deployment to Kuwait.
"It's great to be back," said Sgt. Christopher Ward. "I missed my family."
Ward was among 22 soldiers who became fathers while deployed with the 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery Regiment. When their chartered Boeing 767 landed at Lawson Army Airfield at around 1:50 p.m., the soldiers were part of the first flight to return from training in Kuwait.
Since early June, "Sledgehammer" soldiers have been assigned to Camp Buehring, Kuwait, where they trained with U.S. regional partners and worked closely with Kuwaiti land forces in a series of joint exercises and exchanges.
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Over the next month, more than 1,750 soldiers will be returning to Fort Benning, said Sgt. Erik Anderson, a brigade spokesman.
Greeting Ward was his wife, Bonnie, and their two sons, 6-month-old Karson and 3-year-old Memphis. "It's my first time seeing him," Ward said of Karson. "He is growing up fast."
The only contact Ward had with his newborn was through Skype.
Bonnie said Karson was born July 29, more than a month after the 2,000 soldiers deployed to Kuwait. It was tough for his 3-year-old brother, who didn't know why his father couldn't come home.
To stay busy, Bonnie said she just cleaned and cleaned their home in Smiths, Ala., and got a lot of support from family.
"It it weren't for family, I would have gone absolutely crazy," Bonnie said.
Master Sgt. Reginald Holmes used an iPad and iPhone to stay in touch with family on his fifth deployment. "Technology has come a long way since my first deployment so that helped out a great deal," he said.
Holmes was greeted with a bundle of balloons from son Cameron, daughter Briana, and wife Sonja.
Briana, an accounting student at Georgia Southern University, said she came home more often than usual. "Luckily, we have Apple technology," she said. "We always have FaceTime with one another. It wasn't easy but was convenient to get in contact with one another."
The return of Spc. Matthew Delp was a birthday gift for son Noah Delp, who has a birthday today. Delp said he missed his family the most while in the desert.
"The most I missed was the family and not eating sand for breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said. "It was quite windy a lot of days."
Pfc. Niguel Tilghman of Columbus said it felt good to be home but food was on his mind after being reunited with wife Tynika, and daughter Tayor.
"I missed the food," Tilghman said. "We will probably go out and eat a lot at restaurants, probably Applebees."
Stephanie Mikus said the day was very special with her husband, Sgt. Joseph Mikus, returning from his second deployment since the couple married two years ago.
"It's been a long time," she said before soldiers entered Freedom Hall. "I'm very excited to see my husband again."