PHOENIX - Dawn was at hand, and so was the end of a nearly yearlong wait for dozens of Arizona National Guard soldiers and their families.
An Army Guard medical unit was returning to Arizona after a tour of duty that began Dec. 1 with deployment to Fort Lewis, Wash., for pre-mobilization training. Then it was on to Kuwait and then Iraq to provide health care and training. The unit's 70 soldiers flew back to the United States on Monday, with several days of demobilization work at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Finally, on Friday morning, all the way home.
A chartered passenger jet braked to a halt at the Arizona Air National Guard base at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Soldiers of the 966th Area Support Medical Company walked down a staircase and dropped their bags in rows on the tarmac. Nearby, Patriot Guard motorcyclists held American flags. Then an informal thank-you from Gov. Janet Napolitano.
But that went quickly, because more important business was at hand, the governor later told reporters. "They don't need to hear speeches. They need to be with their families."
Inside the brightly lit Air Guard hangar, hundreds of relatives of soldiers were poised.
"I can't wait to see him," said Kelly Jacobsen, a Phoenix resident and mother of a platoon leader with the 996th, a Tempe-headquartered unit with 70 soldiers from 26 communities.
The hangar's massive doors rolled open, and the unit, its camo-clad members now in formation, marched inside to cheers of delight.
A young girl bolted from the crowd and hugged the commander's leg. When the formation was dismissed, it was replaced by small clusters of hugs and kisses.
"Amazing. It's great to be home," said 1st Lt. Bret Jacobsen, Kelly Jacobsen's son, with one arm around his wife's waist and his other holding his daughter on his hip. "Just pictures and video the whole year."
It's the second time Jacobsen had been deployed to Iraq with the Arizona Guard. The first time was as an enlisted man with a Show Low-based transportation unit.
The latest deployment is finally over, his wife said, sounding relieved. "It's nice to be a family again."
Said Napolitano, the Guard's commander in chief: "We serve our country the best way we can. They've done that and now they're home and that's a great thing."