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Family, supporters greet paratroopers back from Iraq

"Welcome home!" were the sweetest words in the English language to 300 paratroopers who returned home to their families and loved ones on Thursday after 13 months in Iraq.

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Exclamations of "Welcome home!" were on the lips of family and friends when 300 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, including the unit's commander, returned home from Iraq on Thursday.

The 1st Brigade, commanded by Col. Charles Flynn, was the last 82nd Airborne unit to return since the whole division's 13-month deployment began last year.

The soldiers' loved ones waited anxiously for them to arrive at Pope Air Force Base on Thursday.

"(We're) just waiting to see his face so we can just let him know how much we love him and how much we miss him, how much we appreciate him for going out and fighting for our country," said Peggy Manning, the mother of a soldier.

"It's so hard not knowing where he is, what he's doing, and only getting phone calls once, twice a week," Michelle Youngblood, the girlfriend of a soldier, said.

Gracie Wages, though, knew exactly what her uncle had been up to for the past year.

"He protects us, and he saves our planet," Gracie said.

Around 12:30 p.m., the paratroopers stepped onto North Carolina soil. The soldiers marched in rank past their families while "The Star Spangled Banner" played.

Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Middleton said the sweetest sound was hearing screams of "Daddy!" from his two girls. Middleton said he missed seeing them develop during the deployment.

"Just seeing them grow up," Middleton said. "Their sports, doing everything that they do. Their school, everything."

Spc. Eric Cruzat saw his little girl, Hope, for the first time. Cruzat said he was "pretty excited" and had "mixed feelings" when he first held his only child.

The brigade lost eight paratroopers during its 13-month deployment in western, central and southern Iraq.

The unit, 3,000 paratroopers strong, was part of the troop surge in Iraq last year. It partnered with Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq.

The entire division was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan last year. Once the remaining troopers in the 1st Brigade Combat Team return home, all of the 82nd Airborne will be back at Fort Bragg.

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Bryan Mims, Reporter
Michael Joyner, Photographer
Anne Johnson, Web Editor

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