By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - For nearly half of her life, 15-month-old Arielle Haynes knew her father only through the photographs of a young soldier scattered throughout the family's Clermont County home.
Her mother, 21-year-old Loretta Haynes, would hold Arielle in her arms as the infant kissed a framed photo of a somber, youthful guy in an Army dress uniform. Arielle would point at it and mouth one of the few words she has learned - "Daddy."
Sunday night, at the rain-soaked Army base that is home to Spc. Gary Haynes' 101st Airborne Division, Arielle kissed the real thing.
"Look, Aye-yell, look," said Loretta, standing in the doorway of the 326th Engineering Battalion here, amid a crowd of anxious spouses, children and sweethearts waiting for their loved ones to arrive on a flight from Iraq.
A tall, thin soldier bounded off a bus in the pouring rain, rushed past the crowd in the hall to Loretta and Arielle, who were surrounded by other family members who had made the 300-mile journey from Clermont County.
"My baby," Gary said, scooping Arielle up in his arms. "My baby."
The little girl stared in his eyes with a glimmer of recognition - it was the man in the picture. Daddy.
"Man, it's good to be back," the soldier said.
At the peak of the war with Iraq, 151,000 U.S. combat troops were stationed in the extreme heat, sand and culture so foreign to most Americans. Nearly 116,000 remain today to deal with the country's reconstruction and the continuing violence, according to a coalition spokesman.
Sunday night, Gary Haynes had just finished a grueling flight in a commercial jumbo jet loaded with 270 soldiers of the 101st, all of them being rotated out of Iraq because of reassignments or because they are due to leave the Army soon.
Haynes, after a seven-month deployment building helicopter pads in Iraq, is to be discharged in three weeks. Four years kf Army life will be behind him, and the seven recent months of loneliness and hardship will soon begin to fade into memory.
And, like thousands of other young soldiers, sailors and Marines who have gone overseas to serve their country, there is much catching up to do. Their lives were suspended during wartime; now soldiers like Gary Haynes must start over.
"She was just starting to crawl when I left," Gary said of his daughter as the family headed out across the Fort Campbell road to load his bags into the car. "Look at her now. Walking. I can't believe it."
Loretta lived at this sprawling Army base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border with her husband before moving in with her parents in Williamsburg while he was deployed.
She knew how much of Arielle's babyhood her husband would miss, so she videotaped everything - Arielle's first steps, her first Easter, her first words.
"I want him to see it all," said Loretta, "just like he was there."
Sunday night, the family scattered across the parking lot outside of the 326th Battalion to get to their cars in a hard, driving rain. Loretta's parents were there, Gary and Sandy Davis of Williamsburg; Gary Haynes' brother, Chris; Loretta's 16-year-old sister, Kalisha.
Loretta's grandmother, Loretta Eldridge, greeted Gary from a wheelchair, her broken foot propped up, holding a "Welcome Home," sign painted in rainbow colors.
Gary stood in the middle of the parking lot for a minute, his bare head turned up to the sky as the rain beat down on his face.
"Man, that feels good," he said. "Haven't seen much rain where I've been."
The family took over several rooms at the Holiday Inn Express on the Fort Campbell Highway just north of the base, where they sat up half the night talking and watching the antics of Arielle until she, and they, drifted off to sleep.
Monday morning, as the rain clouds began to lift and the sun peeked through the clouds, the family gathered in the parking lot to prepare for the trip home. Gary was to stay behind, to finish his post-deployment work - and wait for his discharge.
Arielle danced around the parking lot, stomping in the puddles the rain had left behind.
The young soldier stood and watched his daughter as she slapped the puddle with her tiny hand. In his eyes were delight, love and amazement at what his little girl had become.
"So big," he said, scooping her up and wiping her hands and feet on his camouflage blouse.
"She's a crazy girl," Loretta said, grinning from ear-to-ear. "You just have no idea. You'll see."
While he was deployed Loretta had sent her husband one of Arielle's favorite toys, a stuffed monkey named Sandy. It was something of hers he could keep with him.
Sunday night, when he met his family at the base, he pulled Sandy out of his bag and gave it back to his daughter, who squealed with delight. She still had it with her Monday morning.
"That monkey's been around," Gary said. "He's home now."
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