\With the Civil Air Patrol and a group of Boy Scouts carving a narrow gantlet through the packed terminal entrance Sunday morning at Juneau International Airport, Spec. Caleb Irwin emerged from the arrival gate at 10:25 a.m.
Almost 30 soldiers from the Alaska National Guard's Alpha Co., 3rd Battalion 297th Infantry were returning home after a 15-month deployment, and Irwin was the first to join the party.
"It was amazing, and the cheering ..., " said Irwin, shaking his head. "It felt weird because I looked behind me and the rest of the guys were just getting off the plane."
They had their moment too. Roughly 300 friends, family and community members - even a bagpipe band and the Fred Meyer bear mascot - doused the troops with confetti and pushed in to shake hands.
The lobby was packed by 9:30 a.m. for the flight's expected arrival. Few seemed to mind that it was delayed 36 minutes. That seemed to make it official, the troops were back in Juneau.
"I didn't think it was going to be this packed," said Anthony Jackson, 22, of 11 Bravo Infantry. "It's been great to see all these people here. It just feels good to see family and friends."
The 30 - a portion of the Alaska Army National Guard's first combat deployment since World War II - arrived in Alaska on Jan. 13 and spent 10 days in out-processing at Fort Richardson. Many immediate family members flew to meet them there.
Platoon leader Joshua Shrader was reunited there with his wife, Gail, and their 17-month-old daughter, Kacy. She was 4 months old when he left.
"When I came home on leave she warmed up to me, and this time she warmed up to me too," Shrader said.
Airport staff allowed many immediate family members into the waiting area near the gate. Almost 250 more filled the terminal entrance by 9:30. Red, white and blue ribbons lined the handrails on both staircases. A large American flag was draped on the wall above the escalator. And a sign, "Job well done. We're proud of you," hung above the south staircase.
There were so many people that the long line of traffic had to be guided out of the two exits from the parking lot. Short-term parking was free for the day.
Chris "Tiny" Olson, his wife, Marcia, and their friend, Jim Langois, showed up with two 6-foot American flags that have been hanging around the Olsons' home since Sept. 11, 2001.
"I don't support out government, but I support our troops," Olson said. "They're just doing what they're told."
Olson, a second assistant engineer, and returning National Guardsman Dan Randall, an oiler, work on the state ferry Columbia. Randall served in the original Desert Storm and was called back to serve.
Olson sent care packages to Iraq and the two exchanged e-mails for the first 10 months of Randall's service. But Olson had not heard from him for the past four months.
"I was very concerned," Olson said. "He's one of my go-to-guys and a friend. Just keeping up with the news, I knew he was still alive."
LeRoy Holbrook and his foster son, James Broyles, showed up on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans. They moved to Juneau a few months ago from Dallas, Ore. Holbrook is 100 percent disabled and served 11 months, 29 days in Vietnam. He returned in 1970.
"Nobody supported us when we came back," Holbrook said. "It was all protesters, people spitting on us and calling us baby killers. People shouting profanities at you. We figured we might as well show up to support them."
Broyles served 13 months in Japan with the Marine Corps.
"These people provided the community protection," he said. "It's nice to see this kind of crowd."
About 30 scouts from packs 21 and 7 and Troop 200 showed up to see the troops.
"It's just to let the guys know that we appreciate what they did, and we appreciate that they're here," said Pack 7 den leader Ivan Hazelton. "It's part of what the scouts do as citizenship."
Capt. Jeff DeFreest, commander of the Southeast squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, stood among a big group from CAP.
"Supporting the troops is important, and we also have a cadet corps who are training for possibly a military career," DeFreest said.
Irwin beamed when he was the first to rush into the festivities. The crowd roared, and he seemed dazed. But there was little time to wait. He had spotted his younger brother, Sam, and his older brother, Jordan, near the escalator.
"I had to run downstairs and run back up," Irwin said. "I can barely recognize (Sam). He's almost as tall as I am now."
Irwin visited Juneau for two weeks on leave in April 2005. It was just a week after he was in his first firefight. His mother, Vikki, his father, Mike, and his other brother, Joel, met him in Anchorage on Jan. 13. This was the first time in nine months he had seen Jordan and Sam.
"It just feels good to have him back," Jordan said. "I don't have to worry about him anymore."
"It was hard not knowing if he was okay, but I made it," Sam said.
"This couldn't be better," Caleb said. "I'm in heaven right now."
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