The soldiers spent somber moments remembering the three who didn't return.
HERMITAGE, Pa. -- While hundreds hugged and cried, a small group gathered in a corner of the National Guard Armory.
Amid puffs of cigar smoke, the clanking of beer bottles could be heard as Spc. Nick Keefer, 21, had his first legal drink in the United States.
"He turned 21 over there," said his mother, Toni, as she puffed on her son's cigar. "We have a whole lot of celebrating to do. Today is Christmas Eve at our house and on Saturday we are having his birthday party."
Keefer, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and 115 other members of the Army National Guard's Battery A, 1st Battalion 107th Field Artillery returned home Thursday after spending more than a year in Iraq. The unit was deployed Dec. 28, 2003.
"It's been murder waiting," said Cindy Clendennen of Beaver Falls, who along with her husband, Larry, and other family members waited for her son Spc. Nathan Clendennen to come home. "He can do whatever he wants tonight. For the past year he had to do what someone else told him. Tonight he can decide."
As soon as the hundreds of family members saw the buses approach the armory, screams of joy erupted. Many in the crowd held flags, yellow ribbons and pictures of the soldiers.
"It was just overwhelming," said Capt. Robert Palumbo of Pittsburgh, company commander. "We couldn't believe all these people came out to welcome us home. The outpouring of emotion is amazing. We had very little fanfare when we left, and this was quite a dramatic change."
The battalion, which left for home early this morning from New Jersey, received a police escort for the bus trip across the state of Pennsylvania. Local fire and police vehicles formed an escort as the soldiers' bus exited onto state Route 18 in Shenango Township for the brief trip to the armory in Hermitage.
Spc. Jason Shipkowski, 20, of Butler said his desire to get home made the bus ride seem extremely slow.
"I just wanted to get out and run here," Shipkowski said, as he hugged his mother, Pearl.
Though many of the soldiers were eager to go home with their loves ones, they didn't want to leave the armory until they spent a few somber moments remembering the three that didn't return home.
Spc. Carl F. Curran II, 22, of Union City, and Spec. Mark J. Kasecky, 20, of McKees Rocks, died in May. Spc. Clifford L. Moxley Jr., 51, of New Castle, died in September. The deaths marked the first time since World War II that soldiers from the 1st Battalion 107th had been killed in action.
"When we left in December 2003, many of you told me to take care of your soldiers," said 1st Sgt. David Gatewood. "I'm now telling you to go home and take care of my soldiers."