Long before sunrise, family members started gathering in a grassy field at Fort Hood, Texas, to welcome home 200 troops from the 1st Cavalry Division, who are among the thousands President Obama promised to bring home for the holidays after nearly nine years of war in Iraq.
On Nov. 19, PEOPLE was there to document some of these joyful reunions and to learn more about the soldiers returning home, many of whom have deployed two or three times since the war began.
They are soldiers like Staff Sgt. Marcus Gable, who became a career solider to “provide for my family while serving my country at the same time,” he says.
Even after the president announced that American troops would be home for the holidays, Sgt. Gable, 35, says, “I didn’t think I’d be going home because we were just getting to the middle of our tour.”
His wife, Anita, 35, didn’t tell their daughters that Daddy was coming home until the white buses, carrying soldiers who’d just arrived from Iraq, rolled onto Fort Hood’s Cooper Field.
“I didn’t want to get their hopes up,” she says.
Now that he’s back, Gable’s girls aren’t letting him out of their sight.
“We’ll be sitting down to watch TV, and everybody is sitting on me instead of the other five chairs in the room,” he says, laughing.
Still, even as he enjoys this time with his family, he’s mindful of his fellow soldiers.
“The most challenging thing out of the whole deployment for me as a leader is not necessarily making it back, but the first 90 days after we get back,” he says. “That’s when the most accidents happen because everybody is so happy to be back.”
To read about more happy homecomings, and the challenges faced by the troops, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday