First wave of Georgia troops return from Iraq

The Georgia Army National Guard soldiers stood at attention for what seemed like an eternity. About 10 minutes. Then, in an instant, they were dismissed by their commanding officer and fled across a hanger toward friends and family on Wednesday morning at the Clay National Guard Center in Cobb County.

Husbands in camouflage uniforms hugged wives with abandon. Mothers snatched up and embraced children. Sons kissed grandmothers. Sisters hugged sisters. Brothers whooped and hoisted brothers in bear hugs. Daughters wept.

The 1-171st General Support Aviation Battalion of the Georgia Army National Guard was home from the war in Iraq. For good. And just in time for Thanksgiving. All 240 members safe and accounted for. None killed, and none wounded in a year’s duty.

“It feels great,” said their commander, Lt. Colonel Dwayne Wilson, in a feat of understatement.

Similar scenes will play out in hangars and on military bases across the country over the next six weeks as President Barack Obama has ordered 40,000 combat troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. This will bring to a close a war that lasted eight and a half years and cost the lives of 4,4000 members of the U.S. military.

Specialist Miles Crook might have had the biggest reception party among the 171st. His family of nine had signs made up ("Miles Crook. Welcome Home! Our Son! Our Nephew! Our Friend! Granny Would  Be Proud!), and his mother, Valerie McElwaney jumped up and down when the plane landed, holding an American flag in one hand and a bible  in the other, and declared: "Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus!"

When Crook finally made it to his wife, Stephanie, he said later he didn't remember what he said to her, caught up in the emotion involved. "I think I said, ‘I love you and I'm glad to be back home,'" Crook said.

Inez Godbee, 31, and her children, Arianna and Desmond, were restless as soon as the plane landed and they saw her husband and their dad, Sgt. Wesley Godbee, 33, walk down the ramp and into the hangar in formation with the rest of the battalion as the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck” played over loud speakers.

“I am so thrilled I could cry, or I could throw up,” Godbee said.

Cynthia Lowe, who said she had family still serving in Iraq, came by Wednesday to show her support for the rest of the battalion. She told Wilson, the commanding officer, that “Thunderstruck” was a fitting song to play when the soldiers walked in.

“I was thunderstruck by it,” she said. “It was like the heavens were rejoicing. It was just so heart-touching. I’m so proud of our soldiers, and so proud of our president bringing them back home for Thanksgiving."

Of the soldiers killed in Iraq, 199 were from Georgia. Of those, 28 served in the Georgia Army National Guard, which deployed its first troops to Iraq within a month of the U.S. invasion in March 2003. During the course of the war about 6,200 troops from the Georgia guard have served in Iraq.

A few members of the Georgia guard are still on duty in Iraq, said Georgia Department of Defense media relations officer 1st Lt. William Carraway, but they’ll return by January. Wednesday was a ceremonial end to Georgia’s military engagement in Iraq. Soldiers and their families said they were proud of their duty, but were eager to see more soldiers home safe for the holiday.

Specialist Laura Bourchier, 23, of Buford, and the rest of her battalion, were stationed at Camp Taji, where she was an automatic logistics specialist responsible for keeping about 20 Chinook and 16 Black Hawk helicopters supplied. She worked 12-hour days, and it will take some adjusting, but she's looking forward to Thanksgiving with her family.

"I'm in charge of baking the pies," she said.