Each time the Army band struck up a martial tune, screaming cheers erupted from the 1,500 family members waiting to welcome home their soldiers from the Persian Gulf war.
On and off for almost two hours yesterday afternoon, they cheered and stamped their feet on the bleachers of a gymnasium at Fort George G. Meade as they waited for the 519th Military Police Battalion to march through the doors.
The 280 soldiers who came home had been deployed in the gulf since October. About 50 more of their battalion will follow, possibly in a few days. One of their main duties was to guard prisoners of war.
After months of waiting and worrying, the families spent yesterday afternoon holding flags and balloons and straining for the latest news of the 519th's progress toward the reunion. They hurrahed each announcement, that the troops had landed at Andrews Air Force Base, had boarded buses to Fort Meade in western Anne Arundel County, had entered the compound.
Harold Jackson, a maintenance foreman at a Pittsburgh steel mill, had worried that his son was in danger even after the cease-fire. And he was still worrying.
"I won't stop worrying until he walks in here and I know he's back," he said.
Jackson had a case of Pabst beer waiting for his son at the back of the motor home in which he would drive the family 4 1/2 hours back to Pittsburgh.
Jane Griest of Millersville assumed that her son, Spc. Larry Griest, would want a shower, a beer and his fishing pole. Spc. Griest's wife, Alexandra, who was holding their 8-month-old son in her arms, hadn't slept the night before. She hadn't thought what she would say to him, because "we don't need words," she said.
But Col. Thomas Raleigh Mann, the garrison commander at the Odenton base, was obliged to find at least a few words. He had the task of delaying the reunion a few minutes with a welcoming speech. He acknowledged, "Nobody's really going to remember what I say."
Mann remembered his own homecoming from the Vietnam War to his hometown of Albany, Ga.
"The first thing you want to do is see your loved ones, or your automobile if you're a single soldier," Mann said. "It's probably the best feeling you could ever have to be welcomed back home."
After arriving behind the gym, the members of the 519th disembarked from their buses to form ranks in their desert camouflage uniforms. Their families peered across the gym and through the open doors, cheering each glimpse of the faces they had longed for.
Finally, the soldiers marched inside to a cacophonous roar, louder than all previous cheering to false alarms about their impending arrival. Griest's baby son began to cry out loud. The boy's mother joined him in silent tears. So did many others.
Across the gym floor, the soldiers stopped and held their posture of attention, eyes straight ahead.
"Good afternoon, warriors," Colonel Mann shouted above the din, through a public address system that was no help to him. "Welcome to Warrior County," he said. Warrior County is the name the 519th bestows on whatever place at which it happens to be stationed.
"We thank you for paying the price on a tough job in a tough environment," he told them, and thanked their families as well. "Warriors, tell your families every day how much you care for them."
The soldiers needed no reminding. At the order to dismiss, the families stampeded across the gym to joyous collisions of hugging and kissing.
The 519th was dismissed for the weekend.
The gym quieted. Words were hard to come by. Sgt. Charles Oakley was silently holding his first son for the first time. The boy was born four months ago while Oakley was away at war.
"It's great, it's hard to put into words how you feel," he said.
All along the highway to Fort Meade, he saw people waving flags and yellow ribbons. He noticed the grass and the budding trees that were so scarce in Saudi Arabia.
Oakley and his wife, Patricia, planned a quiet celebration back at their apartment in Glen Burnie, doing the ordinary things that he had missed.
"I'm just going to go home, take my boots off, relax, eat McDonald's and play with my son."