Maj. Mark Zinno Citarella was scheduled to spend Thanksgiving in Baghdad. The commander of a public affairs unit in the Maryland National Guard, he figures he would have joined fellow officers on a chow line, serving the holiday meal to enlisted troops.
But with the announcement in October that the United States would pull all troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, his unit returned to Baltimore earlier this month.
Now he is looking forward to spending the day with loved ones.
"I am going to stuff myself senseless, is the first plan," said Citarella, 34, a radio talk show host with 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore. "I look forward just to being around my family and spending time with them."
For Citarella and dozens of troops from Maryland, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq has meant coming home in time for the holidays.
In addition to his 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Maryland guard units that have returned include an air traffic control company of the 1-111th Aviation Battalion and the Aviation Depot Maintenance Roundout Unit of the 29th Combat Aviation Brigade.
"It's a great thing that they have the opportunity to spend the holidays with their families," Maryland National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Charles S. Kohler said. "Obviously this time means a lot."
Members of the 1729th Forward Support Maintenance Company landed Wednesday evening at a base in New Jersey. Their demobilization at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst was scheduled to take several days, and they are expected back in Maryland next week.
That leaves about 200 Maryland guard members still in Iraq, Kohler said, and about 20,000 U.S. troops overall. Because the United States and Iraq failed this fall to reach an agreement on a continuing American military presence there, all are due out by Dec. 31.
Citarella says it was clear from the outset that his unit would not be staying "to the bitter end."
"It was more of a question of when, and the anxiety of when it was actually going to happen — that was kind of the hard part. It was hard on the soldiers to tell their families, 'Hey, when am I going to be home? When can I start looking for a new job? When can I start buying stuff for my house?' "
Spec. Aimee Fujikawa, who returned to Baltimore with the unit after nine months in Balad, says she was disappointed at first to learn she would be coming home early.
"I wanted to stay to the end," said Fujikawa, 40, who was on her first overseas deployment. "I felt like I sort of got shorted my whole deployment. Everyone was mentally planning on being there for a year.
"But as things drew to a close and things were less available — like the stores, and things to eat and communications — I'm really, really glad we left when we did."
She has returned with a new appreciation for "all these small things you forget about."
"A bathroom in your house," she said, and laughed. "And having food. Good places to eat. Being in a little bit more relaxed environment. … I don't miss the sandstorms and the extreme heat."
Maryland guard units still in Iraq include elements of the 2-224th Assault Helicopter Battalion, stationed north of Baghdad; a network support company of the 1204th Aviation Support Battalion; and a company of the 1-111th Aviation Battalion.
Those units have yet to receive new orders, but Kohler says the pullout is "happening pretty quickly." Members of the 1729th Forward Support Maintenance Company were flying to the New Jersey base less than two weeks after getting their orders to leave Iraq.
The 120 members of the 29th Combat Aviation Brigade who began deploying to Iraq in September are in the process of moving to neighboring Kuwait, Kohler said. They were to be the last combat aviation brigade in Iraq, and are now the only one in Kuwait.
Like the others, they have yet to receive a follow-on mission, Kohler said. They could finish their year-long deployment in Kuwait, be sent somewhere else or come home early.
Citarella says he understands how soldiers on their first deployment might wish they had stayed. He was on his second; he had worked with Special Forces to train the Iraqi army in 2005 and 2006, when sectarian violence was reaching a crescendo.
"It was a whole different world back then, from the standpoint of not only what the mission was, but just what the country looked like," he said. "You see a vast improvement."
When the orders to ship out came through last month, Citarella said, "there might have been a certain amount of nostalgia to be one of the last people out of the country and to see what was a bustling community at Victory Base Complex in Baghdad go down to a ghost town.
"For me, it's great to be home. The idea that we got to get out of there early, for me, personally — I was elated by it. I was ecstatic."