By Billy Corriher
A dozen relatives weeping tears of joy enveloped Private First Class April Bailey when she arrived in Atlanta on Friday. As soon as Bailey stepped off the escalator, her family broke out in shouts of happiness and relief.
Bailey's uncle, Eddie Hammonds, who raised Bailey since she was a baby, said the close-knit family has missed her a lot since she was deployed to Iraq. "It's been tough," he said. "Last year, she missed Thanksgiving with the family for the first time."
This year, Hammonds said the family will be having an early Thanksgiving celebration before his niece's two-week leave is over.
Bailey and the other troops who arrived were greeted with cheers from dozens of onlookers, USO volunteers and anxious relatives holding small American flags and signs thanking them for their service.
Troops began arriving in Atlanta last week after the U.S. Central Command almost doubled the number of troops going home for a two-week leave from 250 to 470 every day.
Bailey's sister, Susan Harris of Ellenwood, said her family couldn't wait to bring Bailey home. "I didn't sleep at all last night," she said. The family said they have spent the months since the war began very worried about Bailey, who is stationed just outside of Baghdad.
Jerry Goss of Flower Branch said has spent the last week worried and happy about the return of his son, Private First Class Micah D. Goss.
Goss said his son was supposed to be leaving Iraq last weekend, when a Chinook helicopter was shot down carrying other soldiers going home for leave. And though his son was supposed to call on Saturday, Goss said the family was very uneasy until they heard from him on Tuesday.
Fayette resident Becky Smallwood said she can't wait to bring home her husband.
Smallwood said her husband tells her that his company, which is stationed in Mosul, was disheartened by a series of attacks last week and the conflict's mounting casualties. "I think just about everybody in their company's morale is shot," she said.
Mary Lou Austin, executive director of USO Georgia, has been greeting troops coming into Atlanta and said giving the soldiers time away from the conflict is critical. "It's definitely important for morale," she said. "It's not like these guys can go to a movie theater or an amusement park over there to relax."
All of the soldiers who arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Friday were relieved to be 10,000 miles away from Iraq and in the arms of loved ones.
The only word Private Bailey could find to describe her feelings about her reunion was "overwhelmed." She said she looked forward to spending time with her family. "I'm just going to enjoy it while I can, because I know I have to go back."