FORT DRUM, N.Y. – More than 100 western Maine soldiers from National Guard armories in Lewiston and Norway returned to the United States at sunset Thursday, beginning their emotional transition home from the war in Iraq.

The members of Charlie Company of the 133rd Engineer Battalion filed off a plane at the U.S. Army base and traded their guns for gift bags.

“You don’t need your weapon anymore,” Staff Sgt. Mary Reutlinger of Windham told a soldier. He had just given up his M-16 rifle, and Reutlinger handed him a collection of donated goods, including a Maine-made whoopie pie.

C Company was the second of three waves of troops from the 133rd returning home this week. Their flight began in Kuwait with stops in Hungary, Ireland and Newfoundland before landing at Fort Drum in upstate New York in frigid temperatures.

The soldiers cheered as the plane touched the runway, and moments later they filed out and pumped their fists in the air in triumphant relief.

“They said it was going to be cold,” Sgt. 1st Class Robert Smith of Mechanic Falls said as he walked across the tarmac. “But this feels great; fresh American air.”

Before they entered the terminal, the soldiers were met by officials and Sgt. 1st Class Marcel Chasse, an Army recruiter from Greene, Maine, who enlisted as many as 90 percent of these troops.

Family members could not be at the fort because officials didn’t want visits to slow procedures needed to return the troops to Maine.

To Chasse, the soldiers are like family.

“It’s really emotional,” he said. He applauded as they approached, hugged some, shook their hands and welcomed them home.

“This is all about them,” he said.

For each soldier, the arrival means an end to a way of life in Iraq, Smith said. Even when he returned home from Iraq for a two-week leave in October, he said he had been unable to relax completely because of the thought of returning to the war.

“We can finally flip the switch,” Smith said, smiling broadly.

In Newfoundland, he called his wife, Sue, to tell her he was on his way home.

Shortly after their arrival, officers told them Maine is waiting to welcome them home.

The 133rd is headquartered in Gardiner and has nearly 500 members stationed in armories in Lewiston, Norway, Westbrook, Saco, Belfast and Skowhegan.

So many people are expected to greet Company C upon its return to Lewiston that the troops will be brought directly to Lewiston High School on East Avenue instead of the armory.

All the battalion members are expected to return to Maine no later than Saturday, March 5.

It will be bittersweet, though. Three soldiers from the 133rd were killed in conflicts during Operation Iraqi Freedom; one in April and two in December of last year.

“The families of the guys who didn’t make it are on our minds,” Smith said.

For Sgt. 1st Class Normand Roy of Lewiston, weary from the long flight, the arrival seemed unreal.

“It’s not going to be real for me for a while,” he said.

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