Kayden Hoskins can say "Daddy" now, but she could not when her father, Spc. Tom Hoskins of the Maryland National Guard, left for Iraq in February. The 15-month-old from Havre de Grace has known Daddy mostly as a voice on the phone, a man reading her a book on a DVD sent from far away, a face in a framed photograph that on occasion she kisses.
Dressed in a pink winter jacket, brown knitted hat and pink wool gloves, Kayden turned up Saturday morning with her mother, Nicole, and her paternal grandparents to join the crowd of several hundred family members and friends welcoming home troops of the 1729th Forward Support Maintenance Company. When the troop buses arrived at the National Guard Armory in Havre de Grace, she was in the arms of her mother, holding an American flag no bigger than a birthday card.
The unit had been in Fort Dix, N.J., since they arrived Nov. 23 from Tellil Air Base, about 320 miles south of Baghdad — part of the U.S. troop pullout scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. The withdrawal means the troops are home about two months sooner than they would have expected.
Since they arrived back in the country, they've been getting medical and dental checkups and taking briefings to prepare them for their return home. They've been hearing about veterans benefits and jobs, and about how to find their place again in their households.
Three tour buses arrived shortly after 10 a.m. with a Warrior Brotherhood motorcycle escort that picked up the bus caravan at the Chesapeake House on Interstate 95. Driving into the armory compound, the buses rolled past a flag line set up by another motorcycle group, the Patriot Guard, pulling over at the gate as the crowd cheered.
Some wiped tears from their eyes, some held cameras aloft, some hoisted signs: "Welcome Home Mark"; "Welcome Home Keenan"; "Welcome Home Sgt. Joe Swift — We've Missed You."
Mariah Bethke, who is 8 years old, and her 10-year-old sister, Kiernan, held their homemade signs: "I missed you supermuch" and "I [Heart] U" for their father, Staff Sgt. Kevin Bethke of Parkville. His wife, Jennifer, and 16-year-old son, Dylan, stood next to them.
"I just really miss him," Jennifer said. "Last night sort of felt like Christmas Eve."
The buses doors swung open, and 121 men and women of the 1729th stepped out in their light-green-and-tan camouflage fatigues. Some waved at the cheering crowd, and all strode to one side of the yard to form up one more time. Since they left in February, some had come home on a two-week leave, taking a break from the work of maintaining all manner of mechanical and electronic gear: everything from a pistol to a generator to a Bradley fighting vehicle.
Their departure means there are no maintenance support units left in Iraq, said Lt. Virgil Dunmeyer, executive officer for the 1729th. If anything breaks down, it has to be shipped to Kuwait for service, he said.
There are now about 260 Maryland National Guard members in five units in Iraq, some of whom are already being sent to Kuwait, said Lt. Col. Charles S. Kohler, spokesman for the Maryland National Guard. They are among some 20,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq.
The troops lined up four rows deep at one side of the yard before Dunmeyer issued the command: "1729th dismissed."
All were scheduled to have 30 days' leave before getting back to work, or to look for work. Some have jobs with the military; at least one was planning to go on active duty and move out of Maryland.
Dunmeyer, 37, said he was looking forward to a trip to St. Lucia and to traveling to see relatives back in his native California before returning to his job as a Maryland National Guard logistician based in Baltimore. Bethke, 44, planned to return to work as a chef for M&T Bank in Baltimore.
Hoskins, 25, has a job lined up as a small-arms technician with the Guard. First he'll be working on his role in the home, as husband to a woman he married on the day he left for basic training in August 2009, and father to a toddler who has grown a lot in 10 months. She walks now and, in addition to "Daddy," can say "Mamma," "bye" and "uh-oh."
The Fort Dix briefings covered some aspects of what to expect of life back home, Hoskins said, but he knows more lessons lie ahead.
"I have a daughter," he said. "I really don't know how to be a father. So I have to hear from her."