The ceremonies at Fort Meade welcoming home troops from the Persian Gulf may occur at odd hours, like 3 a.m. But that doesn't stop the band from playing or the crowds from coming.
Within the last two weeks, three groups of soldiers have come home through the Odenton fort.Each time they've been met by a band, a speech and hundreds of family members and other supporters who sometimes had to wait through the night.
Nearly 500 soldiers, most from the 519th Military Police Battalion, have been reunited with family members since 280 soldiers returnedMarch 28.
The battalion, permanently stationed at Fort Meade, wasthe first and largest contingent to return home through there. The media turnout was tremendous at the Gaffney Sports Arena that afternoon.
Since then, however, delays and early morning arrival times have dampened the media circus. On Saturday, March 30, 61 soldiers were supposed to arrive at Fort Meade from Andrews Air Force Base at 2 a.m., but delays pushed back the arrival time to 8:30 a.m.
"We ended up losing a few people along the way," said base spokesman Don McClow.
"Some of the media crews were not available. One local TV station showed up. But it was an enthusiastic 300 people who showed up. Most of them had been up all night. They were happy to see these guys back from the desert. And the band played super well."
A few days later, April 5, 150 soldiers came back home. Though they were supposed to arrive at 7 p.m. the previous night, half arrived at midnight and half arrived at 3 a.m.
McClow said part of the problem is that Fort Meade only getsestimates on arrival times. And they are not allowedto make public the times until 72 hours before the soldiers are scheduled to walkthrough the door.
"It's a little game we play," he said.
"When are they coming home?It makes it very challenging to pinpoint the arrival time."
Once officials know about what time the troops will be coming, the First U.S. Army Band has to be summoned, the sports arena must be cleaned, stages put up, lighting checked and the sound system wired. The garrison commander, Col. Thomas Raleigh Mann, gives a short speech welcoming home the troops.
Once the soldiers come in, they stand at attention for the national anthem, a few other songs -- including "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree" -- and then are turned loose to their families. If they are active duty troops,they will be allowed some leave time before returning to work.
The reservists get a few hours off, then must return to Fort Meade and fill out paperwork, get a physical and turn in equipment. After about a week, they can return to their regular jobs. "While they are here, they are still soldiers," McClow said.
But even speeches and songs at midnight are worthwhile.
"The feeling is so much lighter," McClow said. "When they went over there, nobody really knew what to expect. No one knew how serious a conflict it was going to be. Coming back is just the opposite. There is joy in everyone's heart."