AUGUSTA — For 173 Maine soldiers, Tuesday's formation at the front of the Augusta Armory was another rock-star moment.
The crowd behind the rope line whooped and hollered when the soldiers walked in. Moms stood on tiptoes. Dads waved. Kids held signs aloft, stretching to be seen by the figures in the tan battle uniforms.
Asher Pond, 2, and Carson Pond, 5 months, greeted their father with matching T-shirts that read: "My Daddy, My Soldier, My Hero."
"This was nothing like my last deployment," Staff Sgt. Toby Pond of Farmington said. In 2003, when he served in Kuwait, the National Guard soldier was unmarried without kids. This time, days were punctuated by Skype calls. His year in Afghanistan was interrupted by Carson's birth.
On Tuesday, he held both boys close.
"I can't describe it," he said. He flipped Asher in the air, igniting a series of smiles and giggles. "I don't know what to say."
For the past year, the men and women of the 1136th Transportation Company have been working as guards for two of the most strategically important headquarters in Afghanistan: the New Kabul Compound and Camp Eggers. Eggers houses NATO training forces. New Kabul houses U.S. Forces Command, the headquarters led by Gen. David Petraeus.
For many soldiers and their families, it marked the second yearlong deployment in the past decade.
"The first time, I was a basket case," Steven Dee Sr. of New Gloucester said. His son, Steven Dee Jr., served in Iraq with the 133rd Engineer Battalion in 2004 and 2005. This time, parents and son knew what to expect.
He came home safe before, they thought. He'll do it again.
"The last time was a parents' nightmare," Steven Jr.'s mother, Donna Dee, said. In the end, as always, she learned to trust in God. "We can just pray."
As they prepared for Steven's return, they readied his car and planned for a family get-together on the weekend.
"Tonight, he wants to be with his friends," Donna Dee said, beaming after a hug with her son.
The homecoming wasn't as emotional as it was in 2005 when he came home from Iraq.
"I've done it all before," he said, smiling at his family, which included his brother, Travis, his sister, Heather, his 10-year-old nephew, Dillon, and his great-grandmother, Mary Mollerberg, who will turn 100 this year.
"I'm going to relax," he said. "I'll take time to recuperate."
Other folks planned trips or events aimed at reconnecting with family. One group of relatives arrived at the ceremony with a balloon tied to a 12-pack of Miller Lite. Some talked of heading out on snowmobiles before the snow melted.
Livermore Falls native Jim LeBlanc planned a trip to Tennessee with his wife, Alice, and their children, Julie, 2, and Jacob, almost 1.
Though she knew what to expect, Alice LeBlanc said she was worn out by this deployment. Besides the care of the children, there were other needs.
"Murphy's Law kicks in," she said as she waited for her husband's bus to arrive. "There was a broken-down washing machine and that sort of thing." Plumbing in their Buxton home clogged. And the winter seemed unrelenting.
"We just want him home," she said.