The Marine stepped off the plane in delicate suede high-heeled mules and a gray-blue linen dress that was only slightly rumpled.
Just a month ago, Lt. Col. Valerie Thomas, 44, had been eating beans out of a pouch, fighting off malaria-ridden mosquitos, and wriggling along the ground through blinding sandstorms to find her tent. But on Friday afternoon at Juneau Airport, she was wrapped tightly in the arms of her husband, Steve, and surrounded by a dozen friends and colleagues who had come to the airport bearing signs and flags.
"Thank you so much for all those prayers. That's what brought me home," Thomas said tearfully before embracing her husband again.
Thomas had been away from Juneau since Thanksgiving, and in the Persian Gulf from Jan. 4 until May 18. Her unit, the 1st Force Service Support Group, crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq on March 28. The 1st FSSG is the largest such unit assembled since Vietnam, Thomas said, numbering more than 12,000 Marines and sailors.
Thomas, who works as an environmental specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in her civilian life, served as a civil affairs liaison officer while in Iraq and Kuwait. Her primary responsibility was advising the unit's commanding officer on international law regarding the treatment of civilians in a combat zone. This month she retired from the military after 20 years - half active duty and half in the Marine Corps Reserves.
Thomas joined the Corps right out of college because she felt it was her patriotic duty.
"It was back in the '80s when all my peers were going 'Me, me, me. I want to make beaucoup bucks before I turn 30!' And I thought, where is their patriotism?" she said. "I only intended to stay in for three years."
Two decades later, her patriotism remains fierce.
"Even if we don't find any weapons of mass destruction or biological or chemical, we had to go in there. Those people are desperate," Thomas said. "We have made an indelible impression on them with our kindness and our fairness and our goodness."
Thomas recalled rumbling down dusty Iraqi streets in convoys of tanks and Humvees and watching Iraqis, young and old, barefoot and ragged, rush out to wave and call out "America number one!"
"It was very pathetic to see how Saddam Hussein and his regime allowed his country to fail," she said.
There were frightening moments as well. The first SCUD missile launched from Iraq into Kuwait landed 150 feet from where Thomas was standing.
"The only reason I'm here to talk about it is the warhead did not explode," she said.
The rest of the bomb exploded, though, and it took out the windshields of the convoy's vehicles, sending Thomas and the troops grasping for their gas masks and running for the bomb shelter.
But once she had calmed down and realized she was still in one piece, Thomas said, she knew she was going to be safe.
She credits the care packages sent to her by her husband and co-workers for boosting not just her morale, but that of many members of her unit.
Thomas' BIA co-workers sent boxes filled with smoked salmon and halibut, jams and sea vegetables.
"I was extremely popular," she said. "When I would get a package, everyone would get excited because they knew Lt. Col. Thomas was going to come around."
At the airport, co-workers held signs proclaiming "Welcome Home Lt. Col. Valerie Thomas," and "Welcome Home Mrs. Valerie Thomas."
Co-worker Jackie Martin said Thomas' friends wanted to recognize her identity as a wife and as a military officer.
"We're all emotional, and very, very proud," Martin said.
Steve Thomas waited for his wife with an American flag and a dozen red roses. He said the suspense of waiting for his wife's return is always a thrill.
"But now she's finally home, and I don't have to wait no more," he said, beaming.
Thomas plans to spend a lot of time with her husband, whom she married in February 2002. Since then, they've been together only a cumulative three months.
"I told my husband what he's going to have to do is teach me to relax. I don't have to get up in the middle of the night five or six times to run to a bomb shelter anymore," she said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.
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