After an eventful year in Iraq that included an encounter with a homemade bomb, Army Reserve Sgt. Kimberly Gray was ecstatic to be home.
"It's almost too much to think about right now, but I've been waiting for this day for a year," Gray said Thursday morning after stepping off a bus that brought her and other members of the 125th Transportation Co. home to Lexington.
The unit, made up of Army reservists from around Kentucky, had been undergoing post-deployment processing at Camp Atterbury, Ind., since arriving in the United States on Saturday. It was the second tour for many of the soldiers. The 125th also served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
The troops got an emotional welcome just before noon Thursday at Lexington's Armed Forces Reserve Center from hundreds of family members and friends who'd been waiting anxiously for their return.
"I'm trying not to cry yet," said Nancy Noffsinger of Lexington, waiting to see her son-in-law, Sgt. Chris Meetin. "They left a year ago in April, and it's been a long, long time."
Meetin's wife, Chelsea Meetin of Lexington, said it had been a tough year for her family, even though attacks on U.S. units in Iraq have fallen sharply. Her husband also deployed to Iraq with the unit in 2003.
"It was definitely more difficult the first time," she said. "But it wasn't easy this time. You worried less, but not that much less. They were still in danger."
About 50 members of the unit came home Thursday morning. A few more, who remained at Camp Atterbury to complete medical out-processing, were hoping to arrive later. Everybody was ready to be home.
"I was shaking when I stepped off the bus," said Spec. Sarah Spurlock of Lexington.
In Iraq, the Kentucky unit operated in conjunction with the 724th Transportation Co. out of Illinois. Together, they drove more than 540,000 miles hauling cargo, completed 165 missions and delivering more than 27,000 tons of material over some of the world's most dangerous roads.
No one was hurt, and there was only one close call: the improvised explosive device that detonated alongside a truck carrying Gray and other soldiers.
"We were driving at night, so we never saw it," Gray said. "We heard the boom and saw the explosion, and just kept going out of there."
Gray's mother and father, Ralph and Audrey Gray, credited the prayers of members at their church, Consolidated Baptist in Lexington, with helping bring their daughter home safely.
"I'm happy to have her back," Ralph Gray said. "But I just think about the parents of all the kids who aren't coming back."
A huge contingent of family members turned out to meet Staff Sgt. Steve Miller of Winchester, including his wife, Christy; son, Austin, 9; and daughter, Kaylin, 6.
Austin said that with his father away, he'd had no one to play baseball and football with — a fact he aimed to remedy as soon as his dad arrived. Christy Miller said Kaylin had been telling all her friends that she planned to "squeeze her daddy until he pops" the minute he arrived.
Jennifer Brown and her daughter, Audrey Brown, 11, drove from Waco in Madison County to greet the soldiers even though Staff Sgt. James Brown — Jennifer's husband and Audrey's father — wasn't among them. Mother and daughter were hoping he would arrive home later Thursday.
"It's kind of disappointing that he isn't here, but we still wanted to come over and support the other families," Jennifer Brown said.
Annette Harrod of Baghdad in Shelby County said that kind of support was typical of families in the 125th Transportation Co. Harrod, whose son, Sgt. Adam Harrod, is a unit member, was the company's Family Readiness Group coordinator while the unit was overseas.
"We all just kind of pulled together and got through it," she said. "We laughed and cried together. That meant a lot."