FAIRBANKS - Nearly 1,000 of the 3,800 soldiers of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team based at Fort Wainwright returned from Iraq to Fairbanks late Thursday, making it the busiest day for arrivals since the brigade began coming home to Alaska last Saturday.
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Most arrived after dark to Fort Wainwright, but bright lights placed along the road inside the front gate illuminated hundreds of welcome home signs hung along the fence.
With the arrival of three flights in one day, reunions ran close together Thursday.
Karen Lewis thought she was arriving four hours early to meet her husband, Pfc. Michael Lewis. But when she arrived, the families and soldiers from the first flight were just leaving the building.
Still, she was able to accomplish her goal of securing a front-row seat so she could easily spot her husband.
"So we can run to him right away," she said.
At least 15 families from the Lower 48 came to Fairbanks to welcome their soldiers, said Mary Cheney, a Family Readiness Group leader.
Jan Pichard and her husband planned to travel from Houston to Fairbanks in August when the brigade was originally scheduled to return. However, a last-minute extension kept the soldiers in Iraq another four months.
Pichard said her son, Cpl. Samuel Pichard, 21, surprised her with a ticket for a November flight one day when they were instant messaging each other over the Internet.
"He asked if I wanted window or aisle," she said. "I said If you're buying me a ticket, you can strap me on the wing, I don't care."
Even soldiers without families or friends to greet them were thrilled with the warm welcome from the crowd.
They were offered a pizza buffet as they got off the buses, and two limousines were waiting to take them to their rooms.
Walking out of the building, pizza in hand, Spc. Marcus Ham said the extra leg room of a limo would be nice, compared to the buses the soldiers rode from Eielson Air Force Base to Fort Wainwright.
"Let me get out again," he said, kissing the snowy ground and looking up a the sky. "I haven't been in America in a long time."