The 519th Military Police Battalion came home to Fort Meade yesterday to a tumultuous welcome that reflected the roller coaster of emotions the soldiers and their families have experienced since the unit left for duty in Saudi Arabia last October.
First, they were to have been home Sunday, then about 1 p.m. yesterday, then more like 3:30 p.m., then some time between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
When Col. Michael K. Shanahan, battalion commander, walked in the rear door dressed in his desert fatigues about 3 p.m., the crowd, which had been filling the bleachers since noon, erupted in screams and cheers. But it would be at least another hour, relatives and friends were told.
When the 1st Army Band struck up the march, "Hosts of Freedom" a half hour or so later and the doors were flung open, the screams and cheers grew louder. But it would be a while, yet. The band was just filling time.
By the time the roof lines of the buses carrying the troops could be seen behind a hill about a block from the arena, wives and children, husbands, mothers and fathers were nearly frantic. And when the buses were delayed for what seemed like an eternity, lining up outside to march into the gym, a big guy in a Georgetown T-shirt and black shorts bellowed from the top of the bleachers, "BRING 'EM IN, BRING 'EM IN."
Soon, the crowd took up the chant, stamping on the bleachers in time, "Bring 'em in, Bring 'em in."
"We've waited long enough," growled Sally Chiles, who was waiting for her husband, Sgt. Dennis Chiles, "Let's go, let's go," she fretted as she pushed closed to the red ribbon strung between 50-gallon oil drums painted red, white and blue for the occasion.
And at last, Colonel Shanahan, the color guard and about 280 members of the 519th marched into the gym to the strains of "Stars and Stripes Forever" and the raucous "Wooo, Woooo, Wooo" of fist-pumping, flag- and sign-waving, balloon-toting, yellow ribbon-wearing families and friends.
While others cried and screamed, Delceta Wiley, appeared sanguine through much of the ceremony; except for clutching a rose and a tiny American flag between her teeth and clapping in time to the music as the soldiers marched in.
Her husband, Sgt. Mike Wiley, has been in the Army 17 years now, and he's been on deployments before, she explained. She didn't even tell their two children he was coming home for fear they would get excited only to be let down if something went wrong. She and her husband had planned to surprise the youngsters at their school in Mitchellville.
Mrs. Wiley was in the crowd that strained the red ribbon separating spectators from soldiers, trying to pick out her husband in the sea of mottled tan-and-brown fatigues. "I saw him when they were outside, but now . . ." her voice trailed off for a second. "There! There he is!" she shouted, pointed the flag across the gym.
Moments later, she was standing with her hand over her heart, trying to sing the national anthem but choking on the words as her breath came quickly and moisture gathered at the corner of her eyes.
To Sergeant Wiley, the 15-minute wait outside the gym wasn't so bad after seven months in the Middle East. It was the plane ride home that drove him crazy, he said.
"It was terrible. It was an eternity," he said.
Linda Baldwin from Paw Paw, W.Va., pushed through the crowd. "I see him, "I see him," she called, tears streaming down her face. "Stevie, Stevie."
Her 22-year-old son was home, and she and her daughter, Sabrina Murrell, couldn't wait to lay eyes on him. The whole family had driven in yesterday wearing matching T-shirts with an American flag and a Statue of Liberty and waving a hand-made banner that proclaimed, "Welcome, Mountaineers."
Rebecca Mills of Cumberland waved a sign that proclaimed "Sgt. Mills, We love you," and looked for her husband, Jim. That morning, she said, their 6-year-old daughter, Mary, had asked if Daddy remembered what they looked like. "So we made the sign so he'd find us," she explained.
Within moments after the troops were dismissed, Sgt. David Rankry cuddled his infant son, Brandon, for the first time. But Brandon, who didn't know who Daddy was, was having none of it.
Still, he said, it was a wonderful experience to see his son and the rest of the family, wife, Lorraine, and the other two boys as well.
"I'm just so happy to see them all," he said.