Sgt. James Thorpe's first tour in Afghanistan was months shorter than his previous deployment to Iraq, yet for the new Army dad it still lasted nearly the lifetime of his baby girl.
"It was slow," Thorpe of Atlanta said Wednesday as he held his 8-month-old daughter, Alaysia, for the first time since about three weeks after she was born. "My wife sent pictures every day and I've got every picture since I've been gone. She's beautiful, just like me."
Thorpe was among 100 Fort Stewart soldiers who returned home Wednesday from a tour in Afghanistan. About 600 more troops from the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment were scheduled to follow in the coming days.
The battalion's deployment in February marked the first time Fort Stewart's 3rd Infantry Division had deployed ground troops to Afghanistan in the 12 years since the war began. Instead, the Georgia-based division served four tours in Iraq — three of them lasting a year or longer — before the U.S. withdrawal last year.
Staff Sgt. Torrence Gilliam, who served in Iraq three times before his first Afghanistan deployment, said the time didn't seem to pass much faster despite the shorter tour.
"It was about the same because there was no R&R," said Gilliam of Spartanburg, S.C., noting that previously soldiers had gotten short breaks that let them come home mid-deployment.
More than 200 spouses, parents and children — including quite a few strollers holding newborns — cheered, squealed and cried from the bleachers at Fort Stewart's main parade grounds as the soldiers arrived by bus and marched out to the field in formation.
Rynn Allen was waiting with Captain America-themed posters and T-shirts made for her husband, Spc. Cory Allen. That included a star-spangled headband and a red-white-and-blue ballet tutu for their 3-month-old daughter, Lacey. The soldier had been able to make a quick trip home for her birth, but had to return to his unit five days later.
"It was real hard going back, that's for sure," Spc. Allen said, cradling his napping baby in his arms. "But it was worth it."
Overall about 2,200 Fort Stewart soldiers have deployed to Afghanistan this year, including the 3rd Infantry's top general and his command staff. About 100 more are scheduled to go soon and will serve in small teams assigned with training and advising Afghan security forces.
With a fourth wartime tour under his belt, Gilliam said he was eager to reunite with his family in South Carolina and feast on some hot wings for dinner. He's in for a busy fall with a wedding in December followed by a Christmas trip to Disney's Magic Kingdom in Florida.
The soldier's fiancée, Samantha Fidilio, said she isn't counting on this being his unit's final deployment.
"Not if they're stationed here," she said of Fort Stewart. "But I keep hoping."