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Pandemic Concerns Force 82nd Airborne Members To Return In Waves

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Nearly 3,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division left Fort Bragg earlier this year and went to the Middle East in response to unrest. The pandemic delayed their return. Now the 82nd is coming back to a changed nation, a changed military and a changed homecoming. Here's Jay Price of WUNC.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The soldiers are returning in waves. Carolyn Fitzwater and her children come every time a planeful (ph) lands, no matter that her husband won't be on one of those planes for at least a few more days.

CAROLYN FITZWATER: So today is the third installment of - well, I think we're dubbing it the Pike Field parade. We're just welcoming home the buses.

PRICE: This is homecoming in the era of COVID-19. Families aren't allowed at the airfield. So instead of the soldiers being released into a sea of hugs and kisses, they board buses that head for a nearby parking lot where a handful of supporters wait. But the buses aren't allowed to stop. So both sides just wave and shout. On a recent afternoon, about 30 carloads of families and friends joined Fitzwater, her two grown daughters and teenage son in the parking lot.

FITZWATER: We've got all our ready-made signs. Some of us have Christmas lights, not me because I wasn't cool enough to figure out how to plug them in (laughter). But signs, and all the families come out, and lots of honking and yelling and just cheering the buses as they drive by.

PRICE: Soldiers who live with family go to a drop-off site where one family member is allowed to pick them up. Then they head home for a two-week quarantine. The rest are taken to a tent camp on base or designated barracks for their quarantine. Fitzwater says it's important to come out for every plane so soldiers have at least some kind of homecoming ritual.

FITZWATER: The first night, I don't think they knew. So it was dark. And I think they were a little confused. We did one two nights ago, I think. That one was amazing because they were out the windows hollering back. And you could tell that they were excited it was happening. Sometimes it's even harder, I think, to leave without a paratrooper in your car after you're welcoming them home. But it is what we do. This is our way of life.

PRICE: It's not just being the wife of a paratrooper that's driving her, she said, but also being the mother to another. Her 20-year-old daughter, Houstyn, who's standing beside her, is in the 82nd. Houstyn just got noticed she'll be deploying soon for the Middle East. Her sister, Dallis, has news of her own. She's engaged to a sergeant who'll be on one of those buses in the next few days.

DALLIS: I decided, when he gets home, we don't really want to wait any longer. So that was that. We're just going to get married soon as this is over and he's home.

PRICE: Well, as soon as he gets home and does his two-week stint in the tent camp. At the parking lot, it isn't just families showing up.

KEVIN SCRUGGS: So all my guys are scattered across the brigade

PRICE: As their spaniel, Attila (ph), watches, Captain Kevin Scruggs and his wife, Noreen, attach a string of flags to their SUV. Some of the Army engineers Scruggs commands were part of the deployment.

SCRUGGS: So I'll have a handful every single flight. So we're out here every time they come back and make sure they all get home safely and get a happy face.

PRICE: Suddenly, a pickup truck turns into the parking lot followed by a line of white buses.

FITZWATER: Here they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

PRICE: Soldiers wave from open bus windows and hold out cellphones for photos.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

PRICE: It was over in just a couple of minutes, all the time it took the seven buses to roll past. Military officials say the welcome demonstrates the kind of resilience that will get families through the pandemic. They say homecomings will get better for the soldiers one day. But for now, the Pike Field parking lot parade welcomes them home.

For NPR News, this is Jay Price at Fort Bragg, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR JR SONG, "I GOT LOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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