FORT STEWART - Teary wives, small children and proud parents with flags and ''welcome home'' signs shrugged off a sleepless night with cheers and whoops Monday when their citizen-soldiers marched onto the field just before dawn.
After a long and dangerous year in Iraq, the first 100 troops of the Georgia National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade had come home - an advance party to prepare for thousands more soon to follow.
''It feels good to be back,'' said Sgt. 1st Class Don Whitmire, 48, a full-time guardsman from Bainbridge. ''I hate leaving my guys back there and they're still running combat missions, so they're working it hard. But they'll be joining us soon.''
Whitmire's girlfriend, Sonya Salter, his daughter, Christy Harrell, and Harrell's three young children were among about 60 family members who stayed awake through the night to give the troops a rousing homecoming.
''I had one hour of sleep,'' Salter said, beaming without a hint of fatigue. ''I'm too excited.''
The returning troops, from units across Georgia, make up the advance party for about 4,300 members of the 48th Brigade who deployed to the Middle East last May. For the most part, the reservists have been separated from their families and day jobs since January 2005, when they mobilized for months of training at Fort Stewart.
The remaining soldiers should be home between mid-April and mid-May, said Brig. Gen. Larry Ross, commander of the Georgia National Guard's 78th Troops Command, who greeted the soldiers at Fort Stewart.
''Welcome home,'' Ross told the returning troops after they arrived at 5:50 a.m. Monday. ''Great, great job. You performed magnificently.''
The soldiers stood ramrod straight in formation for a brief ceremony before Ross released them to reunite with their families, who rushed the field in a flurry of hugs, kisses and tears.
Sgt. Emory Morris didn't have to look too hard for his wife, Julie, and children Ashley, 23, and Chuck, 21. He could hear them calling him: ''Emory Morris, where are you at?''
''Right here!'' the 56-year-old truck driver from Thomaston called back, from about 20 feet away, raising his arms and waving.
Morris wrapped them, one at a time, in a big bear hug, as tears streamed down all their faces.
''It's great. It's just great,'' he said.