ST. CLOUD -- Some 75 Minnesota Army National Guard soldiers returning from a yearlong deployment on Wednesday couldn't have been happier with the red, white and green.
That would be red meat, white snow and green grass.
On the afternoon before Thanksgiving, loved ones and crisp air meant perma-grins all around at the soldiers' homecoming to the Army Aviation Support Facility.
Shortly after noon, the soldiers descended a stairwell off a chartered Delta Airbus 319 from Fort Hood, Texas. They stood briefly in formation before erupting into shouts, laughs and tears as the camouflage-clad troops and their families burst toward each other.
"Now everyone can have a good Thanksgiving," said Capt. Nathan Foster, commander of Company B. "It will probably be one they remember the rest of their lives."
Those soldiers completing their yearlong mission will be joined in the weeks ahead by thousands of others as part of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. All but a small security force is expected back on U.S. soil by year's end.
As recently as mid-October, nearly 40,000 troops remained in Iraq, the final vestige of a war effort that saw more than 1 million U.S. troops serve there and cost more than 4,000 lives.
About 10,000 troops also are expected to return home from Afghanistan by Dec. 31, where about 100 Minnesota Guard members are serving.
The St. Cloud-based Company B returned after flying 800 missions, transporting 49,500 personnel and more than 7 million pounds of cargo, according to the Army.
Denise Swedeen called the reunion moment "a big relief for the spouses." Her husband, Master Sgt. Mark Swedeen, returned from his third deployment, the second to Iraq in this war.
Swedeen's burden also lifted. "It's just a great feeling, a huge weight off your shoulders. I don't have to take care of the soldiers or have them asking me, 'What do I do next?' " he said.
All 80 soldiers who deployed returned without serious injuries, but Dave and Mary Klug of St. Cloud didn't get to pick up their daughter, who remained in Texas for another week to recoup from a minor injury. Warrant Officer Chara Klug pilots Chinook helicopters.
As they pulled their daughter's rucksacks off a flatbed, the couple soaked up the event. "You're always so glad to actually see them and feel them," Mary Klug said of the soldiers.
Family wearing matching red T-shirts turned out for Sgt. Nick Kizer, a flight engineer. His name was written along with thanks across the shirts. Amanda Kizer said her husband would spend a lot of time with their 2-year-old daughter Madyson -- after a lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings.
"We're going to go home, relax and have fun," Amanda Kizer said.
Specialist Nathanael Walker of Duluth said the soldiers were buzzing as they looked out the window of the airplane at the snowy and green Minnesota topography.
He held tight to his girlfriend, Anne Wetherbee. They planned to pick up a roast beef sandwich on the drive home.
"I have never been so happy to see grass. I'm sick of sand. It's miles and miles of sand as far as the eye can see," a beaming Walker said. "America seems like heaven on Earth -- the climate, quality of life, food and family."
Sleeping in his own bed will also be "fantastic," Walker said, adding that he looks forward to not having to be "fully dressed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night."
Dave Guerts stood waiting for his son, Specialist Dan Guerts of East Bethel, to load up his gear. "Now we're going to get him a great big American hamburger," Guerts said of the family's plans.
Swedeen's three sons, Caleb, Micah and Aaron, stood around him wearing new Camp Taji baseball caps with their monogrammed names. "I'm sure all three boys have a lot planned for me," Swedeen said.
Caleb, 13, grew six inches in the past year. His plans for dad? "Wrestle," Caleb said.
Micah, 11, wanted to go hunting with dad. Aaron, 8, was eager to show off his artwork.
Swedeen's plans included steak. "I'm going to grill out tonight," he said.
Foster also planned to hunt, fish and "eat good food," including steak, because in Iraq it is "well, well done."
He walked to the parking lot with 6-year-old niece Rayne and commented on the air. "It's cooler than we've been living in; it's good," Foster said. "When you go from dust and dirt, it's nice to see grass."
Another big change lie ahead for Foster -- his son Colby turned 1 on Halloween and has learned to walk -- and squirm.
"I can barely hold onto him," Foster said. "The biggest, most interesting piece will be coming home to be a dad."
Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson