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SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah National Guard's "Triple Deuce" have been returning from Iraq in small groups since Nov. 18, but Thursday's return was a big one: 40 members arriving in Salt Lake City and 140 flying in to Cedar City.
About 475 members of the 222nd Field Artillery Battalion deployed in June but are coming home early, thanks to orders from the White House to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.
"I've been dreaming about this day for six months now, since the day we left, and it's just amazing — something you can't romanticize enough to have it be as good as it is," said Casey Shaheem, who has been deployed to Iraq twice and away from home in stateside deployments twice. "The leaving doesn't get any easier, the coming- home part gets better and better."
Still in the terminal at the Salt Lake International Airport, Shaheem asked his two young sons what Santa was going to bring them for Christmas, then scooped them up. "I got my presents right here."
Travis Smith had his parents and a very excited poodle, Guido, waiting for him to come through security at the Salt Lake City International Airport. "He's my best buddy," he said.
You can't romanticize enough to have it be as good as it is.
–- Casey Shaheem, 222
The logistics of moving thousands of troops out of Iraq is proving to be a complex task, said Guard spokesman Maj. Bruce Roberts. "It wasn't going to be one large movement, so they just started getting them out as fast as they could. Since Nov. 18 they've been coming home in small groups."
Some in the Triple Deuce made it home in time for Thanksgiving; all are expected home before Christmas, Roberts said. "Right now they're not on the schedule to be redeployed. It could be happening sometime in the future, but it won't be happening anytime soon."
Thursday's arrival gets Jeff Walker home in time for both Christmas and his first anniversary in two weeks. "I was afraid I would miss it, but then we were able to pull out of Iraq before the holidays."
As a stream of men and women in uniform came into view on the other side of airport security, Walker's wife, Stephanie, said she said to herself: '"Is it really him?' I was just really excited to see him, that he's here."
Roberts said the battalion has been doing a little bit of everything — except their primary role as artillery soldiers.
"They have been spread out in all portions of Iraq, doing everything from security of bases to route security to route clearance," he said. "The leadership of the National Guard is thrilled to have these guys home, all safe and in time for Christmas."