FORT MEADE -- Sgt. Elizabeth A. Quaine, her eyes brimming with tears and a smile never leaving her face, stood in the middle of Gaffney auditorium yesterday, clutching the 6-month-old niece she had never seen to her desert camouflage fatigues.
Sergeant Quaine was surrounded by her family and more than 200 men and women of the 85th Medical Battalion who turned out to welcome back the last seven soldiers from Fort Meade to return from the war in the Persian Gulf.
But after nine months in Saudi Arabia, what was on her mind?
"Dairy Queen!" the 24-year-old medic blurted. "I missed the hell out of a Dairy Queen!"
Her dad, Ronald W. LaRue of Harrisburg, Pa., immediately declared that the fast-food stand would be the family's first unannounced stop on a well-planned afternoon of crabs and a home-cooked meal.
"Whatever she wants," Mr. LaRue said.
Sergeant Quaine and her six colleagues in the tiny 75th Medical Detachment -- part of the 85th Medical Battalion -- may have heard President Bush tell the nation Feb. 27 that "the war is behind us," but they were the last from this Anne Arundel County base to actually put it behind them.
But yesterday, it didn't seem to matter how long they had been overseas, just that they were back.
"It feels real good, all these people coming out on a Saturday, and all," said Sgt. Alfonzo Miller, 26, originally from Dermott, Ark. "It just feels great."
The 75th ran a medical clinic in Dharan in the beginning of their tour, tending to medical needs of both U.S. troops and Iraqi prisoners of war.
They were supposed to return in February, but were reassigned to operate a clinic at the port of Jubail, where they stayed until their return.
"The mission we had meant we had to give medical coverage wherever there were troops," Sergeant Miller said.
The yellow ribbons have all but disappeared at Fort Meade, though Operation Desert Storm banners, T-shirts, pins and hats abound. Coming home has become something of a routine to many at the base, Army officials conceded. The major celebrations and parades are long over, the war already has become a thing of the past.
But the last seven men and women were far from forgotten. They returned yesterday to all the fanfare that had been afforded the ++ more than 2,700 soldiers from 42 active, reserve and National Guard units who had preceded them at Fort Meade.
As the seven medics in their desert camouflage fatigues bounced into the Gaffney Sports Arena, the crowd of soldiers, a few pockets of civilian well-wishers and families gathered in the stands erupted in applause. The U.S. Army Field Band piped up "The Stars and Stripes."
The ceremony was brief, and as the band struck up "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," the crowd swarmed over the seven honorees. There were hugs, kisses and slaps on the back.
After the initial hug and a kiss, 25-year-old Sheila D. Miller stood back and let groups of soldiers circle around her husband, Sergeant Miller, who was all grins.
"I'm just proud and happy to see him," Mrs. Miller said, her eyes damp with tears.
Mrs. Miller confessed that she had sent the couple's two sons, Brandon and Christian, off to her sister's home out of state, so that it would be "just me and dad tonight."
Asked what he had planned for the evening, Sergeant Miller replied, "Oh, we'll probably be locked in a house somewhere."
Sergeant Quaine, meanwhile, held tight to her niece, Alexis, who slept through the entire ceremony and subsequent hoopla.
"It's a good feeling. We really did something over there," she said. "It makes you feel more wanted, that you really have a mission in the Army."
But, her father interjected, "She will not re-enlist.
"She did her bit, and this is it," Mr. LaRue said. "She can't go through this again. We can't go through this again."
She nodded in agreement. "It's been a long nine months," Sergeant Quaine said.
Nevertheless, Mr. LaRue conceded, "I'm proud. I was scared, yeah. I was angry, yeah. But I'm proud."