A contingent of military leaders lined up at the base of the stairway pushed against the chartered jet that flew about 200 soldiers from Kuwait to Wisconsin.
When the doors opened, smiling soldiers wearing their desert fatigues and carrying their weapons flowed onto the tarmac.
Mark Kreger of St. Paul said he spent a lot time trying to keep roads clear of improvised explosive devices while in Iraq. Kreger has a wife and an 8-year-old daughter in St. Paul. His two other children live in Florida.
"It's a long-awaited dream," he said. "The air's a lot crisper and cleaner. Not having to walk on rocks and sand. A lot more stable. It just feels good."
Kreger and other returning soldiers talked about the lush green of the trees and grass.
The 2,600 Minnesota troops of the 1st Brigade Combat Team have been in Iraq for about 16 months -- four months longer than they had anticipated because of the troop surge that was announced earlier this year. Kreger says he and his fellow soldiers expected the extension.
Jacie Swanson says when she found out she would be in Iraq for more than a year, she was devastated. Swanson was trained as a medic, but did several other jobs too.
She said she's happy to be back, but like the others, she looked tired after the long journey. Swanson said she's a bit unsure about her transition from Iraq to life at home in Minnesota.
"Everything that is just everyday life for a lot of people here, like cooking and cleaning and just going grocery shopping... I haven't done that for two years, and to do all of that and be a wife again, you know, that's a big responsibility too," Swanson said. "So I'm excited to get on with my civilian life, but yet I'm very nervous."
Before being discharged at local armories around Minnesota, the brigade members will spend about eight days demobilizing at Fort McCoy, just a short bus ride from the airfield where they landed. A significant part of that demobilization process will revolve around advising the new veterans how they can best move on from the war.
After waiting in a long line to turn in his weapon, Andrew Merryman, who's from the Coon Rapids area, said he wished he were headed home now, rather than to another barracks at another military post.
"I'm excited to be home," he said. "I'm dreading the out-processing part of it. About 11 months before we came on this deployment I had just gotten home from Kosovo, so I've been through this once before and it's a big, long paper shuffle--lots of sitting and waiting."
Just before the soldiers boarded buses for Fort McCoy, the commander of the 34th Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Rick Erlandson, addressed the group in an aircraft hangar.
Erlandson told the troops they have a lot to be proud of. He also seemed to be preparing them for the debate at home over the controversial war.
"You have made a huge difference in the lives of the Iraqi people," said Erlandson. "No matter what history says about Operation Iraqi Freedom, no matter what the pundits say and the history books say, we all know that you need to take pride in the fact that you have given the Iraqi people an opportunity for a better life."
Many more flights full of 1st Brigade Combat Team Red Bull soldiers will be landing at Volk field in the coming days.