FORT STEWART, Ga. (AP) -- Army Staff Sgt. Robert Brown's third deployment Iraq was also his longest - he was 39 when he left, and he turned 41 the day before he returned to Fort Stewart on Wednesday.
His wife, Taura Brown, and 4-year-old son Jacob had a cake waiting for him at home that said, "Happy Birthday and Welcome Home."
Brown was part of the first Army division tapped for a third combat tour in Iraq. He was among 500 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade returning Wednesday from a 15-month deployment to Iraq. The rest of the brigade of 4,000 troops will return in the next two weeks.
"The only thing I want to do is just go home and be around nobody but them," said Brown, of Chatham, La., as he pulled off his helmet and flashed a wide smile at his wife and child.
Hundreds of wives, children, mothers and fathers let loose with cheers and tears as the first group marched onto the Fort Stewart parade grounds Wednesday afternoon.
At least 75 soldiers from the 19,000-soldier division died during the latest deployment, the military said.
The division helped lead the charge to Baghdad in the 2003 invasion, and returned to Iraq in 2005.
During their third deployment, division soldiers had their tour stretched to 15 months - compared with the typical 12 month rotation - as the Pentagon boosted troop levels in Iraq to crack down on violence from insurgents.
"It seemed like forever," said Spc. Bradley Glasscock, 33, of Wilmington, Ind. "We were already three months into the deployment when they told us we'd get an extra three months. So it seemed like we stopped and started over again. We were just biting at the bit to get home."
Pfc. Adam Inbody missed his daughter's second and third birthdays while he was in Iraq. When he swept up little Victoria in a big hug Wednesday, the toddler was wearing a T-shirt that said, "Bye, Bye Iraq, My Daddy Is Back."
"It feels like I haven't seen my husband in decades," Krystal Inbody said. "I've been a nervous wreck, but now that they're home I'm much better."
Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, has said he hopes to reduce tours back to 12 months for soldiers deploying to Iraq as early as this summer.