FORT WAINWRIGHT - In the corner of a building as large as an aircraft hangar, Maria Dudley waited for her husband to return from a yearlong deployment in Iraq.
Dudley held their 8-month-old daughter, Delisa, born while Staff Sgt. Jamie Dudley listened on the telephone from the combat zone. Three-year-old Bianca slept on a chair nearby.
The 25-year-old wondered if Delisa would remember her father, who met her briefly while he was in Alaska on leave when she was 2 weeks old.
Both Dudleys belong to the 4th Battalion, 123rd Aviation Regiment; Maria Dudley is a sergeant. About 500 soldiers from the battalion are returning home after a tour in which they flew Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters carrying soldiers, prisoners and cargo around Iraq.
A first wave of soldiers returned in early November. About 100 arrived Saturday, and another 100 or so were expected Sunday. More are scheduled to arrive later this month.
"This is the first time we've been separated like this," Maria Dudley said.
She said she had stayed up half the night cleaning house. She wore a new outfit Saturday. Her hair was styled and her nails polished.
"It lets you know your marriage is strong when you get through a deployment and everything is good," Dudley said. "I told him over the phone, we're going to start dating because you are different and I am different. He was like, OK."
Jamie Dudley isn't the only one whose household changed while he was gone.
In a unit that saw 32 babies born in the last year, Staff Sgt. Martin Chapman's second grandchild, a boy, was born and his eldest son moved out of the house. Lt. Col. Randy Rotte's wife grew her hair long and his teenage son obtained his driver's license. Sgt. Ryan Evans' wife walked miles and miles last summer, losing nearly 50 pounds.
Michelle Evans held back tears as she waited for the man she married 10 years ago and hasn't seen since June 22.
"I made it through the year and I didn't have any major problems," Evans said. "I learned that I could take care of myself."
Lisa Rotte, wife of battalion commander Lt. Col. Randy Rotte, paced, talked on a cell phone, chatted with other wives and offered directions to other organizers of the Family Reunion Ceremony. "Busy is better," said Rotte, who last saw her husband Sept. 18.
Marie Chapman, wife of Staff Sgt. Martin Chapman, sat quietly watching some of her six children - Amy, 22, Martin Jr., 20, Tiffany, 16, Michael, 14, Kira, 10, and Ian, 8 - color a poster for their father.
Chapman told his family he would return Dec. 15 in hopes of surprising them; "The surprise is going to be on him," Marie Chapman said.
Two hours late, the soldiers arrived after spending the last week in Kuwait, where they caught a flight to Eielson Air Force Base with a refueling stop in Iceland.
From Eielson, buses took them to Fort Wainwright where they turned in their weapons and received instructions before reuniting with their families about 5 p.m.
As the soldiers stepped off the buses, about a dozen children ran to the edge of a rope used to cordon families from where the soldiers would gather in formation. The children held up homemade posters as the 9th Army Band played "Sabre and Spurs."
Onlookers hooted, hollered and whistled and some of the solders smiled and waved. Others searched the audience for loved ones, and still others kept their gaze forward as they assembled into two clusters, one for Alpha Company and one for Delta Company.
Every so often a soldier would break out into a broad smile, though their faces grew serious when the band played the national anthem and Col. John Buss, commander of the aviation task force, offered remarks.
The soldiers flew numerous helicopter missions, logging 10,000 hours, the colonel said. They worked in sauna-like temperatures, caught sleep when they could; days off were virtually nonexistent.
"The amazing thing about being over there is you don't even know what day of the week it is," Buss said. "They toiled during long days, weeks and months."
The desert is among the worst conditions to fly in, Buss said. "It just saps your strength," he said. "It's difficult to focus."
The unit experienced no combat casualties, although one soldier died of other causes.