For more than a year, every member of the 690th Military Police Company of the Florida National Guard and their relatives shared the same dream - the day the soldiers would return home from Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the dream came true.
On a clear and cool Georgia afternoon, 120 members of the 690th, which is based in Crystal River, first appeared on the far edge of a field at Fort Stewart, Ga., emerging from behind a row of cedar trees. They marched in unison across the parade ground toward the reviewing stand and into the loving arms of their relatives.
"Don't pinch me," said Kaitlyn Ligman, 14, as she watched the soldiers. "I don't want to wake up from my dream."
One of the soldiers was her father, Paul Ligman, although the unit was still too far away to pick out individual faces.
As the soldiers marched closer to the reviewing stand, a small sea of posters with messages such as "I Miss Daddy" and "Welcome Back" came into view, and by the time the soldiers stood just yards away from their loved ones, tears were flowing from soldiers and civilians alike.
The last notes of the national anthem drifted away, and the relatives swarmed off the bleachers and waded into the formation, looking for their returning soldiers to hug and kiss. It was a tender scene: a strange silence punctuated by the occasional sniffle of a joyful cry.
"To say I'm thrilled that he's back is an understatement," said Stacy Padilla of Citrus Springs as she welcomed back her husband, Sgt. Alberto Padilla. "But that's exactly how it feels for me - thrilling."
The Padillas were married in November 2004, only weeks before the 690th shipped out for its deployment to Afghanistan.
"He still owes me a honeymoon," Stacy Padilla said.
The 690th Military Police unit was stationed at Baghram Air Force Base. Its mission was to provide security on the base and guard prisoners.
"We freed thousands of people over there, and we did some good things," said Rhett Roy, a 690th member who is also an elementary school teacher in Spring Hill. Roy was holding his 6-month-old daughter, Shelby, who wore a red, white and blue dress.
Shelby Roy was born Aug. 29, two days after her father came home for a two-week leave. He only saw her for about 12 days and then had to return to service. Since then, he and his wife, Heather, relied on Web cam images to keep the new father informed of the happenings back home.
"She's really grown," he said.
Roy said he plans to take some time off to get reacquainted with his family and then return to his old teaching job.
The 690th will stay in Fort Stewart until Sunday or Monday as part of its demobilization process. It's a time to fill out paperwork, but also a time for the soldiers to wind down and prepare to return to their civilian jobs.
"They're coming back to a totally different atmosphere," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa, a member of the National Guard public affairs office who attended the welcome-back ceremony.
"Each time, the military learns a little more about the process," Kielbasa said. "They are a lot different now than they were three or four years ago. There's a lot more support and more emphasis on reacclimation."
During demobilization, the soldiers stay in barracks at Fort Stewart. They spend a few hours each day attending to military business and look forward to seeing their families in the afternoons and evenings. The families stay in hotels near Fort Stewart.
On Wednesday, Julie Lofreddo of Homosassa and her two sons, Charlie Veal-Lofreddo, 11, and Robert Lofreddo, 2, spent the morning in their hotel room a mile from the fort, getting ready to welcome back her husband and the boys' father, 1st. Sgt. Douglas Lofreddo.
Lofreddo, a Citrus County sheriff's deputy, was one of the senior commanders of the 690th, and he led the soldiers as they marched across the field.
His wife greeted him wearing a T-shirt with his picture. Above it was written, "Always in my heart and now in my arms."
"I'm just so glad that this moment has finally come, that it's all over," she said.
Sgt. Lofreddo also expressed relief at the welcome-home ceremony. "It's hard to put words into the feelings that I have right now," he said.
As things stand, there are no public welcome-home ceremonies planned for the 690th's return to Citrus County, but that may change.
Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 798, based in nearby Hinesville, Ga., also greeted the soldiers. Jimmy Waynick, who served in Vietnam in 1967, was handing out small American flags.
"We've had someone here for every welcome-home ceremony for the past three years," he said. "That's something that Vietnam War vets didn't get, and I want to make sure that this doesn't happen to these soldiers."
Jorge Sanchez can be reached at 860-7313 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.