Florida National Guard soldiers returning from Iraq are arriving at the base here in irregular waves that continued Saturday and will stretch through the next several days.
Now, the Guard must find a way to keep them in uniform.
Seven hundred are due back from war duty, and the arrival of each batch of 70 sets off a tearful celebration for families who greet them. But the wartime experience for these soldiers is far different from the traditional role of National Guard troops. They have patrolled the streets of a war zone, been fired upon and fired back, and been gone for a very long time.
"It's still hard to believe," Diane Plomatos said last week before leaving for Fort Stewart to greet her son, "that, being from the Florida National Guard, he's stationed over in Iraq."
Many soldiers are expected to leave the Guard in coming years, now that they understand it's a part-time job that can lead to a year or more in a war zone.
While that always has been true, today's National Guard soldiers are far more likely to be deployed overseas than in the past. And the Florida National Guard, officials acknowledge, has been relied upon heavily for combat duty.
Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett, adjutant general of the Florida National Guard, said he knows he will need to make sure returning soldiers are given more leadership opportunities in the Guard. He also will need to provide some flexibility for soldiers coming back from such long deployments.
But he's not worried about losing too many.
"Certainly we know some will get out," he said. "Some always get out. But I don't see the train wreck we've been hearing about."
He said he is strongly considering canceling the two-week-long annual summer training program for soldiers who served in Iraq. They already have been away from their families for months and have honed their skills on real patrols in Baghdad.
"We've got 2,000 leaders coming back," he said. "We need to treat them that way."
Burnett said retaining these combat-tested troops now depends largely on showing them they can continue to advance in the Guard to higher rank and responsibility _ with the understanding that they could be deployed again one day.
"This isn't a part-time job anymore," Burnett said. "That went out the window 20 years ago."
Staff Sgt. Robert Gipson, a graduate of Leto High School who grew up in Tampa, was among the soldiers in Bravo Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment who came back Saturday morning. He is in the Guard because he pledged to do something for America after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He had previously served in the New York National Guard.
Gipson has no regrets.
"I feel very fortunate to have gone to Iraq. The people of Iraq, they love Americans," said Gipson, who has a condo in Clearwater. In spite of the frequent attacks on U.S. soldiers, he said he received warmth and gratitude from Iraqis.
"It's hard to speak for the other soldiers," Gipson said as his sisters hugged him tearfully, "but I tell you, the soldiers that I went to Iraq with, they would give their life for the people of America."
Staff Sgt. Patrick Anson, 25, who also returned Saturday, said he's not sorry he is scheduled to serve in the Guard until 2008 even though it took him away from home and his sports medicine studies at the University of West Florida.
"I knew when I re-enlisted that the Guard's role would be bigger," Anson said. "I'm ready to step up to the challenge."
Not everyone feels that way.
Spc. Ray Boutwell didn't need long to answer a question about whether he would re-enlist.
"That is a 100 percent, definite no," said the Pensacola Junior College student. Boutwell also serves in Bravo Company, but he got to Fort Stewart weeks ahead of his fellow soldiers because he is on convalescent leave after being injured in Baghdad. He described how he participated in a Dec. 8 raid there, breaking into a house filled with more people than anyone first realized.
Inside, someone broke a glass table over his back and a shard pierced his lower left leg.
"The only time I've ever seen blood spurting was on that movie Black Hawk Down," Boutwell said.
And he knows some got it worse. "My squad leader lost both his legs right after this," said Boutwell.
Plomatos, who lives in Pinellas Park, is just glad her son is finally coming home. Pfc. Jason Plomatos is scheduled to be on one of those buses any day now.
It's been a long haul for mom. Her son turned 19 while in training at Fort Stewart; he turned 20 in Iraq. He signed up for seven years in the Guard. His mother hopes he comes home and stays for a long while.
"I don't believe that he'll go anywhere for a year," she said. "But is he going to face the same thing in a year?"
Many families complained to elected and military leaders that Florida's part-time soldiers were serving overseas at war even after many full-time military personnel went home.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., complained last year that Florida National Guard soldiers were among the first to be activated, some getting the call to duty the day after Christmas 2002, "and yet other states' National Guards who had activated later were going home."
Nelson said last week he asked Gen. John Abizaid why the Florida National Guard soldiers were serving longer and Abizaid replied, "One reason is, the 124th is good."
The senator said Charlie Company of the 2nd Battalion, which was scheduled to return late Saturday, was "in Iraq before the war started. They broke through the berm on the western border and went through with the Special Forces. That's how good they are."
Other Florida National Guard soldiers guarded Patriot missiles, attached themselves to active duty combat troops and performed other missions. For the last six months, many patrolled the streets of Baghdad and helped root out insurgents and their caches of weapons.
The soldiers who returned Friday and Saturday are among about 700 set to return over the next few days. These soldiers are among the first Florida National Guard soldiers since World War II to receive the Combat Infantry Badge.
Some families were still waiting Saturday, not sure exactly when their loved ones would come home.
Nancy Harris of Wewahitchka and her three daughters have been increasingly anxious to see their husband and father, Willie Todd Harris. He was originally scheduled to return Thursday, and his wife still hoped to see him late Saturday night.
The family is ready. Taylor, 6, colored pages from a NASCAR coloring book for his father. Oldest daughter Hailey turned 11 last week, but she decided not to open her presents or have a birthday party at the bowling alley or Chuck E. Cheese. Not yet, anyway.
"She didn't want to have her party," Nancy Harris said, "until her daddy was here."