They stood in the front row, clad in tight, cotton knit dresses. The blonde wore red, white and blue; the brunette, a black floral number that highlighted her tan. They wanted to make sure that Maryland National Guardsmen James E. Teague Jr. and Aaron Henderson saw them.
"What can you expect?" asked Chris Teague, who stood with her friend Kelly Dobry in the midst of a cheering, flag-waving, sign-toting crowd waiting to welcome home the men and women they sent to war. "They haven't seen us in five months."
And when the soldiers of the 290th Military Police Company marched into the Gaffney Sports Arena at Fort Meade in their desert camouflage fatigues and sand-colored boots at 6:15 p.m. yesterday, the two young women whooped and hollered and shook with glee.
"It's almost over," Mrs. Teague said.
In a raucous, fist-pumping, ear-splitting moment, it was. The wives and husbands, children and parents, friends and sweethearts rushed from behind a yellow tape, and the homecoming began.
"I just didn't think this day wouldcome," said Spc. Bridget Novak, a Westminster secretary who boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia in early December with her Towson-based unit.
Sunburned from the desert sun, Specialist Novak stood with her 4-year-old son, David, held in her right arm and three bouquets of roses tucked under her left arm.
"I love you, bud," she whispered to the wide-eyed boy.
"There's my man, right there," said a red-eyed Lori Bokeno, as she tugged on the jacket sleeve of her husband, Spc. David Bokeno of Baltimore. "He looks great."
Specialist Bokeno, who was enrolled in Towson State University when his National Guard unit was called to active duty Nov. 15, turned to his young wife and said, "Stop crying. And give me my wedding ring back." Mrs. Bokeno took the ring from the gold chain around her neck -- where she has kept it since her husband left for Saudi Arabia -- and slipped it on his finger.
"Now I feel married again," he said. "I'm happy to be back. It's been a long four, five and a half months."
The men and women of the 290th were among the 500 guardsmen Maryland sent to the Persian Gulf -- citizen soldiers who left jobs as electricians and police officers, homemakers and secretaries, law students and home improvement contractors, accountants and correctional officers. Their mission was to guard prisoners of war. From the moment the ground war started and until long after the cease-fire, they did just that. They worked 12-hour shifts in towers that overlooked a barbed-wire enclosure the size of a school gymnasium.
"It didn't necessarily get easier when the war was over," said Spc. T. Ann McElroy of Kensington, who hopes now to enroll in the cooking school she had planned to attend. "They just kept coming. I feel ready to be home."
A bottle of champagne nestled in the crook of her arm, SpecialistMcElroy said, "This is a lot better than an M-16 or a .45."
The families of these soldiers had more than champagne waiting for their loved ones.
Lynn Nichols stayed up all night decorating her Reisterstown house with red-white-and blue streamers and flag decals. She saved the Christmas tree and strung it with patriotic streamers.
"I baked and cooked everything he likes to eat -- brownies, banana nut bread, roast beef, ham," said Mrs. Nichols, whose husband, Sgt. John Nichols, was among the returning soldiers. "And I even went and bought him Chinese food. He likes tangerine beef."
Sergeant Nichols had a few things on his agenda.
"I've been sleeping on a cot for six months. So I want to sleep in a bed," said the sergeant, a 20-year employee of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. "Take a shower that's not timed and one with water that you can turn on so hard that it stings."
Specialist Teague of Catonsville arrived back in time for a renewal of wedding vows on the day on which he and his wife had initially planned to marry, May 18.
But the first thing Mrs. Teague planned do when she got her husband, home was "lock the doors."
"The bedroom doors," added her friend, Kelly Dobry of Owings Mills.