The holidays might have passed, but for several local families, the festivities began yesterday, when 39 men and women from the Maryland Air National Guard stepped off a C-130J aircraft at Warfield Air National Guard Base in Middle River.
"Tonight we are going to Maggiano's," said Esther Strawder-Payton of Rosedale shortly before her son, Sgt. Dallas Perry, 23, landed at the base. "We are just going to eat pasta and hang out for a long time."
Several of Perry's family members waited with her, holding helium balloons, including a pink one that read "Happy Birthday" - a day Perry had missed while away, along with Christmas.
Perry's 8-year-old sister, Michelle, eagerly anticipated a promise her brother had made.
"He told me he was going to take me shopping for toys," she said.
Many of the returning members of the 135th Airlift Group had been deployed overseas - some for the first time - since early November, while others, like Perry, had left after Thanksgiving. Their arrival marked the end of the unit's nearly continuous two-year deployment abroad, during which guardsmen served in rotations that typically lasted about two months, said 1st Lt. Wayde Minami, a Guard public affairs officer.
Since December 2004, the unit of about 285 members has flown more than 4,800 hours to locations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa, Minami said. Their aircraft carried medical supplies, food, ammunition and about 33,500 passengers - including Iraqi elections officials. They also conducted a humanitarian relief mission after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, Minami said, and helped with the repatriation of U.S. citizens from Lebanon.
But as of yesterday, their mission was over, said Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, the state's adjutant general, during a reception for the Guard unit.
"We have done it honorably, and we have done it well," Tuxill said.
In the minutes before the guardsmen landed, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons gathered in clumps as they waited for the gray aircraft amid the drone of the C-130J's engines. Several waved American flags. Some held balloons that read "Welcome Home" and "I Love You."
Everyone wore a smile, unperturbed by the occasional light raindrop that landed even before the aircraft.
Angela Ward, 44, of Edgewood described her daughter Ashley's first overseas deployment as "a trying time," holding red roses for her 23-year-old daughter. Senior Airman Ashley Ward's grandparents, brother, cousin and aunt were also standing by.
But her brother, Christian Ward, 17, said his sister's fairly regular phone calls made it seem as though she had not really left. "I knew she was doing something for our country," he added, which helped him deal with her absence.
This past Christmas was the first that her daughter had missed, Angela Ward said. "Her Christmas presents are home," she said.
Moments later, after she landed, Ashley Ward said what she wanted most, however, was sleep - and a helping of the chicken and dumplings she said her grandmother owed her.
Despite her fatigue, she said, being home "feels pretty good."
The unit should be able to enjoy that feeling for a time, Guard officials said.
"Right now, we do not plan on going anywhere," said Col. Joe Llewellyn, commander of the 135th, who returned from his third stint abroad in August. "This is the end of our deployment."
But for Perry, who said he had been counting down the days to his homecoming, the return signaled the beginning of another assignment: "I have got Christmas shopping to do," he said.