FAIRBANKS - When Melissa Harmon asked her husband by phone last week if there was anything special he wanted when he returned from a year in Iraq, he had one request.
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"The only thing he said is there better be a 12-pack of Killian's in the fridge," she said.
By Tuesday morning, the beer was chilling, the house was clean and Melissa and her 5-year-old son, Gavynn, had nothing to do but wait. Melissa hadn't told Gavynn his dad was coming home later that night.
And at 11 p.m., Staff Sgt. Craig Harmon, along with 178 members of the advance party of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team arrived in Fairbanks after nearly 12 months in the Middle East and the largest deployment of Alaska-based forces since Vietnam.
Families gathered on Fort Wainwright to wait for the soldiers to be bused from Eielson Air Force Base, where they had landed a few hours earlier. Some families were sporting new outfits and hairdos, holding handmade signs and cameras at the ready. As the buses pulled up, cheers went up and continued until the soldiers marched into formation and were dismissed and families swarmed forward.
"Let's go get my daddy," one small boy yelled, pulling his mom forward.
Melissa and Gavynn quickly found Craig, who scooped his son onto his shoulders. He said Gavynn looked different from when he last saw him in November while home on leave.
"About 6 inches different," he said.
Capt. Seth Smallwood, like most of the soldiers, looked tired from a long flight but content to be home.
"This is great," he said motioning to the crowd. "A little overwhelming."
DeeDee Smallwood had not told her children Tre, 4, and 8-year-old twins A.J. and D.J. that their dad was scheduled to return Tuesday. The kids knew their dad was arriving sometime soon and had signs for his homecoming ready. A.J. said he was looking forward to going to the arcade with his dad when he returns. The kids are also looking forward to Seth making his famous sweet potatoes, fried halibut and peach cobbler.
D.J. said having her dad home will be exciting and fun, just like when he came home for leave in April.
"But he'll be back for good," she said.
DeeDee said most of Seth's friends and family do not know he returned Tuesday night. She was keeping the secret, she said, so her husband could have a couple days to relax. It's a tactic she said she picked up during a series of reintegration classes the Army holds for families of returning soldiers.
"Our plans are to do nothing," she said.
Tuesday morning, Melissa was also preparing for her husband's arrival. She sat on the edge of an ottoman in her living room and talked about the last year without her husband and his imminent arrival. She radiated an anxious excitement.
"We're so excited," she said. "I just miss having him here to talk to."
Melissa said she kept busy during the last year volunteering at Gavynn's preschool and surrounding herself with friends. She said she didn't realize how difficult would be to care for her son by herself, along with planning for the family's move to Fort Rucker, Ala. in July. But she said Craig has been understanding about the toll the deployment has taken on her.
During her husband's visit home in November, Pfc. Christopher M. Alcozer, who was in Craig's company, was killed during a raid on what turned out to be an explosives factory in Mosul. While at home, Harmon had difficulty getting news about what happened and it gave him an appreciation for what families back home go through, Melissa said.
"Him being here in November, it really put things in perspective for him," she said. "I knew it was going to be hard for Craig but I never knew how hard it was here. You know the other person has been through a lot but you can't compare it to each other."
And she said while Craig will be happy to be home, he's mentioned to her that it'll be hard not to think about the 172nd soldiers still in Iraq.
"He said he's excited to be home with his family of course, but he said it's going to drive him crazy leaving his guys behind,"' she said.
The rest of the more than 3,100 soldiers of the 172nd will continue arriving home through July and August. As Melissa suspected, the soldiers still in Iraq were forefront on Craig's mind Tuesday night.
"It's finally over," Craig said. "But there's guys still over there. That's the hard part."