P O P E A I R F O R C E B A S E, N.C., Jan. 29, 2004 -- For the first time, U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq are being required to undergo counseling to help them adjust to being home.
The U.S. military is concerned combat experiences and being away for an extended period of time could put returning troops at risk for post-traumatic stress, domestic problems — and even suicide.
Spc. Robert Hernandez of the Army's 82nd Airborne admitted being nervous about what it would be like to return to his old life after spending nearly a year on the battlefields of Iraq.
"It's going to be weird and strange," said Hernandez. "Our whole lifestyle is completely different from what it used to be."
When Sgt. Mike Bechtel was on leave last November, he was constantly on the lookout for roadside bombs.
"They can expect some of that, I'm sure," he said. "I know I did when I was on leave. A little on edge, a little jumpy."
Once soldiers complete two weeks of counseling, they will get 30 days of leave. They sometimes call home being "back in the world."
For the 82nd Airborne's Third Platoon, Alpha Company, coming "back to the world" was no easy task. It took four days of shuttling from base to base and tent to tent, including 20 hours on a cold, crowded plane to get back to North Carolina.
They are among 125,000 troops currently being replaced by 110,000 fresh soldiers and Marines.
The 82nd Airborne flew into Southern Iraq last March. What was supposed to be a quick airstrike turned into a 10-month deployment.
But just before 3 a.m. Wednesday, Third Platoon, Alpha Company stepped onto an icy tarmac and heard the one order they had been waiting for: "Fall out!"
The experiences of the 82nd Airborne Division have undoubtedly made most of the soldiers appreciate their homecoming more than ever before.
"It feels good. It's unbelievable still," said Hernandez.
"It's the best feeling in the world to know your husband's home safe — finally," said Chreistin, his wife.
Sgt. Tyler Williamson remembers spending almost every night in Iraq on patrol, on a raid, or in battle.
"I know for a fact something's going to be in the back of everybody's mind about over there. But I'm going to try to put it out [of my mind] as far as I can for a little while," said Williamson.
For Page, who won a bronze star, home means quiet, family … and a thick grilled steak for dinner.
Page said, "I'm interested in getting home, seeing my family, and having a home-cooked meal — from actual home, not here."
Going home means one simple pleasure for Sgt. Edgar Stork.
"The first thing I am going to do it pull over at the nearest gas station because I want a beer," he said. "That's what everybody's going to do. I want to drink a beer."