For Specialist Chancy Cotton, who was among the first US troops to arrive in Iraq in 2003 and the last to leave last weekend, four tours and nine years of fighting were more than enough.
The 31-year-old was about 200 soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Division who were given a raucous standing ovation on Saturday at their base in Texas, where they made it home in time for a Christmas Eve to remember.
“I’m glad that it’s over with, that the fact that everyone gets to come home and hopefully everyone did not sacrifice in vain, because a lot of people didn’t get to come home,” he said.
Standing in a turret, he threw up his hands in jubilation last weekend as his armored column rolled into Kuwait at first light, ending a conflict that unleashed a vicious insurgency in Iraq and deeply divided the US.
On Saturday he and his fellow soldiers marched through an icy rain at the parade field here as family and friends cheered and waved US flags.
After a brief ceremony in which the unit’s colors were unfurled after the long flight home, Colonel Phil Battaglia issued a single order: “Charge.”
Moments later, Cotton wrapped his arms around his wife Tia and their eight-year-old son Tyler.
Also attending the ceremony were Virginia Solis and her four children, who welcomed home Specialist Ismael Solis, 32, a three-tour Iraq veteran.
“It’s hard for me,” she said. “I had to be a mother and father at the same time.”
The celebration was tempered by the knowledge that while the US is finally out of Iraq it is still at war in Afghanistan. The wives of some of the returning troops said they were already preparing for another tour.
“They said they’re going to redeploy in 2013, so it’s just another step we’ll have to take when we get there,” said Tricia Joseph, who is 19 and four months pregnant.
“Either way, I’ll be standing by his side through everything,” she said.
The jubilation is also overshadowed by the knowledge that many soldiers never returned. The US lost 4,484 troops in Iraq, while 32,000 others were injured, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.
The 1st Cavalry Division, which rotated through Iraq three times and has sent smaller units at other times, lost 283 soldiers there, a spokesman said.
“It’s scary not knowing if our loved ones are coming home, especially when he’s the father of your kids,” said Amanda Tougas, mother of two.
Some soldiers expressed concern over whether Iraq will be able to defend itself in their absence. Cotton fears that a series of deadly bombings in Baghdad last week could be a sign of things to come.
“I was expecting something to happen, but hopefully it gets stable over there for all the sacrifice that we’ve done, and hopefully it will work itself out,” he said.
US President Barack Obama has been criticized by some Republicans for failing to convince Iraq to extend a 2008 Status of Forces Agreement in order to keep some US troops in the country.
However, many veterans said they thought the US had done as much as it could.
The 2003 invasion toppled the brutal regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who was tried and executed in 2006, and a “surge” of 20,000 additional US troops in 2007 helped to contain a rash of sectarian bloodletting verging on civil war.
US Army Captain Travis Pendleton, 30, of Yorba Linda, California, downplayed the potential effects of the withdrawal on Iraqi security.