The international terminal at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was a sea of video cameras, glitter-encrusted welcome signs and pocket-size American flags last night as more than a hundred family members eagerly awaited the arrival of members of Maryland's Air National Guard returning from a six-month tour in Iraq.
Three generations of the Beck family nabbed the best spot, directly in front of the swinging doors where 27 members of the 175th Security Forces Squadron were due to arrive.
The soldiers, based at the Warfield Air National Guard Base in Middle River, were deployed in August and conducted defense operations at Baghdad's international airport.
"I won't be satisfied until he gets his feet right here," said Dorothy McCormick, grandmother of Staff Sgt. James Beck III, a camera dangling from her wrist and tears in her eyes. "Not until I know for sure he is safe."
She and her daughter Shirley Beck drove from their home in Woodbury, N.J., to welcome Beck home, and they brought nearly a dozen family members who jostled for a better view. It was part homecoming, part celebration; Shirley Beck was also celebrating her 60th birthday.
"I couldn't sleep all night," she said. "No one can top this birthday."
When Sergeant Beck strode through the swinging doors nearly two hours after the family had gathered, he carried a red, long-stemmed rose and a miniature birthday cake for his mother.
"It just feels so good to be home," he said, surrounded by clinging nieces and nephews. "Being separated from my family, especially during the holidays, it's very hard."
The emotion was too much for Mary Watkins of Eastpoint, who began tearing up as she watched a misty-eyed mother wrap her airman son in a hug.
"Oh gosh, here I go," said Watkins, dabbing at her eyes. "And he's not even here yet."
She was referring to Staff Sgt. Charlie Watkins, whom she married in a courthouse ceremony in October 2006. Four months later, Mary Watkins, who is also in the Air National Guard, was assigned to Dover, Del. She returned in August, weeks before her husband, a Baltimore police officer, left for Iraq.
"The worst part is not being able to call him when I have a problem. He's my best friend," Mary Watkins said. "My grandmother passed away, and my mother was hospitalized. It was really rough going through that without him."
By the time Charlie Watkins walked through the doors, she darted beyond the designated waiting area, pushed past a handful of television cameras and leaped into her husband's arms. As if on cue, the crowd behind her cheered.
"I didn't expect this," Charlie Watkins said. "But it feels great."
For families, the most difficult part of a deployment can be that one is left behind to run a household on his or her own.
"I have a great respect for single parents," said Tonia Ball of Port Deposit. "You have to be both mom and dad, good cop and bad cop. It's tough, but you do what you've got to do."
For Ball, it means juggling the everyday tasks alone while her husband, Michael Ball, misses daughters Emily, 12, and Hannah, 8, along with soccer matches, church gatherings, karate classes and craft projects.
"I showed him the birdhouse I made on the Web cam," Hannah said. "He said, 'That's awesome. We have to make one when I get home.'"