FORT BENNING, Ga. - The 598th Maintenance Company arrived home just ahead of a powerful tornado outbreak that swept across Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Nearly 120 Soldiers returned Wednesday evening from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, when the storm system moved south toward the tricommunity area.

The unit provided maintenance, weapons system repair and vehicle recovery support to the Kandahar region for the 101st Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, NATO forces and other elements.

Clouds and lightning moving in from Alabama could be seen from the cockpit as the plane flew into Georgia around 7 p.m., pilots said. Twisters touched down north of Muscogee County in Georgia and Russell County in Alabama. Aside from reports of a few downed trees, Columbus was left unscathed.

The weather did not affect the flight, which departed from Germany on a nonstop route to Lawson Army Airfield, nor the homecoming at Freedom Hall, where hundreds of families cheered when the flight landed.

"I\'m relieved," said Jessica Willis, wife of Sgt. Edmond Willis. This is Edmond's fifth deployment.

Jessica gave birth Dec. 6 to the couple's first son, Jay, while her husband was home on R&R. He returned to Afghanistan when Jay was 6 days old and Jessica has both worked full time and cared for their baby nonstop for the last four months.

Jay, while an "easy baby," doesn't sleep well at night and Jessica said she's looking forward to some well-earned rest now that Edmond is home.

"It's been a juggling act," said the working mother, adding she's looking forward to sharing dinners with her husband and settling back into family life.

John and Linda Copenhaver said the storm system didn't change their plans to drive from Lockhaven, Pa., to welcome their son, Spc. Brett Copenhaver, home.

The Copenhavers, habitual travelers who've caravanned across most of the U.S., made the roughly 1,000-mile trek to Columbus earlier in the week to beat the storms.

John, a 20-year Navy veteran, said making the trip was important because it's been difficult to visit their son in the last few years. Prior to deploying with the 598th, Brett was stationed in Korea.

"You can't fathom what you're going to go through when your child deploys," John said.

"Emotionally, it's been a very long deployment," said Jeanna Ward, the company's family readiness group leader.

Ward fielded questions from families, offered support and arranged for reintegration briefings in the weeks leading up to the unit's return. Many of the families were enduring their first deployment and most had young children, she said.

Following a short ceremony and remarks by Col. Johnnie Johnson, commander of 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, the Soldiers were dismissed to reunite with their families. Soldiers headed to barracks on Main Post were escorted by riders from the local chapter of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.