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Homecomings at the nation's military bases are treated as occasions of the highest order. This morning, more than 100 families at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, waited for hugs and kisses before the sun came up. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN was there.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: The 747 touched down just before sunrise.
JOHN KING: Look at that big old plane.
JACK BELZER: That's giant.
FARMER: Wives and children crowded the fence line to catch a first glimpse. The soldiers' boots hit the tarmac, still carrying their weapons.
KING: Captain Belzer, papa.
FARMER: Captain Andrew Belzer belongs to Sarah. She's holding their youngest daughter, trying to keep her calm and warm in the frosty air. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Captain DANIEL Belzer]
SARAH BELZER: She is 10 months old.
FARMER: So she was born just before your husband left?
BELZER: Yes. She was super tiny.
FARMER: These soldiers are part of the 101st Airborne Division, which has been in near constant rotations to the Middle East since 9/11. This deployment has been the shortest so far, just nine months. Belzer says she is getting good at being a single parent.
BELZER: This is our third. Yeah. No, we got it down.
FARMER: But the return is still sweet, particularly this time of year.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FARMER: An Army brass band plays as husbands pick up their kids, three at a time, and gawk at how much they've grown. Donna Bates says she is thankful to have the father of her two girls home for the holidays.
DONNA BATES: It's a huge deal. And it's a big deal for parents. We don't want to have to do Christmas alone, and a lot of times we're faced with that.
FARMER: It's 5 in the morning, but the women are beautiful with their hair, makeup and nails perfect, because who knows what could happen. Your boyfriend might step off the plane and get down on one knee.
FARMER: A young lieutenant cracks open a small ring box. Caitlin Stye says yes before he can even say the words will you marry me?
CAITLIN STYE: I was wondering why his hands were shaking. I'm like, what's wrong?
FARMER: Homecomings have not lost their luster. But families say they prefer to avoid the need for them altogether. Division commander James McConville addresses the soldiers in formation with their loved ones surrounding them.
COMMANDER JAMES MCCONVILLE: People have often asked me what winning is in Afghanistan. And I tell them that winning in Afghanistan is advising and assisting the Afghan security forces so they can take full responsibility for their country.
FARMER: The soldiers just off the frontlines in Afghanistan say the situation does seem more promising. This brigade had no casualties, which is a big change from the last deployment. Sergeant First Class Kevin Tye says he spent much more time on the sidelines letting the Afghans kick in the doors.
SERGEANT FIRST CLASS KEVIN TYE: You're getting rid of the seek-out-and-destroy-the-enemy type mentality. There's a big difference from what it was in '03 when I first deployed there until now.
FARMER: But even with the current drawdown, Tye says it's entirely possible he will be asked to deploy again. For now, the cycle continues for the 101st Airborne. Even as this unit celebrates a homecoming, others in the division are packing their bags to leave in the next few weeks. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.