FORT HOOD, Texas -- The long wait is almost over for families of III Corps' Special Troops Battalion Soldiers. Banners are hung, hair and beauty appointments have been made, and the days have been steadily blacked out on the calendar.

As the advance party of 142 STB troops returned early Friday morning, their arrival signaled the end of a very long wait. In the next few weeks, the Corps' steady return of Soldiers will continue and their families and friends could not be happier.

While the Soldiers are in Iraq preparing to hand over their mission and return to their families and lives in Central Texas, their families also have been preparing to welcome those Soldiers home.

For the past few weeks, the spouses and family members have been busy making up the rooms of single Soldiers, making banners, attending redeployment briefings and waiting for the word that their Soldier is on his or her way home.

The job of keeping 4,000 family members and loved ones up-to-date on ceremony times and dates rests squarely on the shoulders of Headquarters Command Family Readiness Support Assistant Cleo McDonald and her staff.

"Be patient and expect delays and changes," McDonald said. "Don't make big plans because ceremony times change."

McDonald and her staff have relied heavily on the e-Army family messaging system to alert family members about ceremony dates and times.

"It's a secure way to notify families," she said. "We upload contact information, and it puts out the notifications and tracks how and when contact is made."

Families can receive their updates via e-mail, phone call or text message, McDonald added.

"It's good for communication," she said.

For the families of returning Soldiers, patience and communication were just as important as the physical and emotional preparation for the Soldiers' returns.

Tara Monroe, spouse of Staff Sgt. Ryan Monroe, cleaned the house and ordered a welcome home banner and a cake in anticipation of her husband's return.

She also prepared herself emotionally.

"I am prepared to not expect things to be the same as before he left," Tara said. "I know it's going to take work."

The couple, who married in June 2009, already has made plans to attend marriage retreats and do things as a couple to reintegrate. They hit a rough patch, as many couples do, during the long deployment, but Tara said they opened the communication lines and, in the end, strengthened their relationship.

"Communication is key," she said.

Other spouses also helped Tara through the year-long separation from her husband.

"They are going through the same things," she said.

With strong support from family and friends, Tara was able to weather the storms of deployment.

The best advice she received' That she is not alone in her experiences or emotions.

"I'm not the only one feeling the way I do," she said. "You go through so many things, and none of it is abnormal."

For Erin Gile, wife of Staff Sgt. Gavin Gile, the date of her husband's deployment is not on the forefront of her mind.

"The only date that matters is the one he comes home," she said.

When the staff sergeant comes home in the next few weeks, he will be greeted by his wife and three boys, the youngest of them only 7 months old, and who has not seen his father since he was born.

Gavin has watched his children and kept in touch with his family through Skype.

"The technology has been amazing," she said. "He's been able to see the baby grow."

The near-daily communication helped everyone during the deployment, Erin said and her husband's efforts were appreciated.

"He always makes time," she said.

For her husband's return, Erin has made banners, stockpiled the refrigerator and been running on the treadmill. The rest of the family has been preparing as well.

"The kids are super excited," she said. "The dogs got haircuts."

The couple has talked about the reintegration process.

"We laugh about it," Erin said. "We are trying to be realistic."

All she knows is they will spend quality time getting back into the household routine.

For the first several days after his return, Gavin will spend one-on-one time with his children and wife.

"Each boy will get a day," Erin said. "We're trying to make a plan."

The staff sergeant was home for the birth of his youngest son, but had to return to Iraq shortly after. Erin said she thought the initial goodbye for the start of deployment was tough.

"His leaving the second time was the hardest part," she said. "You just take the good with the bad."

Family and friends, in person and on the phone, sustained her, as did caring for the couple's sons.

"Three kids will keep you busy," Erin said. "(But) the last few weeks, time seems like it is dragging."

The couple's sons have a countdown calendar and two jars of marbles to track the time. Each day that passes, a marble is moved into the other jar. Each day, the children see the deployment getting shorter as the time passed jar is quickly filling.

"They're ready for their dad to be home,' Erin said.

Erin was involved with the unit Family Readiness Group while her husband was deployed. She recently hosted an FRG social where the spouses made signs to welcome home the III Corps Soldiers.

"It was a chance for one last get-together," Erin said.

Pamela Howe and her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Howe, have been together "forever," but married during Joseph's leave.

"I've cleaned the house, made banners, decorated the car and just done everything I can to prepare," she said.

The couple will celebrate Joseph's birthday, Christmas and New Year's Eve all in one day, Pamela said, so she made a cake and got her husband "special things I know he'll want."

One of the top things she will have waiting for Joseph is a request he made.

"He wants a Mountain Dew," Pamela said.

As she prepared Jan. 27 to welcome her husband's incoming flight, Pamela was ready to get on with their lives and spend time together as a family.

"I'm just happy it's over," she said.

Page last updated Tue February 1st, 2011 at 10:07