At one of the most spiritual times of the year for many Americans — Easter and Passover — one of the rescued POWs was still thinking of all the U.S. troops still in Iraq.
"I say a special prayer each night for our fallen comrades, for the soldiers that didn't make it home, and the ones that are still over there. I want everyone to remember them in their prayers," Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr. told 1,500 cheering colleagues, friends and family members who had gathered late Saturday night at Fort Hood.
The events at Fort Bliss, where five members of the 507th Maintenance Company were returning home, and Fort Hood, where two helicopter pilots also held as POWs were based, were at times solemn, raucous and even humorous.
"This almost makes me as nervous as being shot at," the tall, lanky Young, of Lithia Springs, Ga., quipped as he gazed out at the crowd.
"Hoo-ah!" hollered comrades wearing black berets. Others let out piercing whistles.
Young, 26, was flown to Fort Hood with fellow Apache helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, of Orlando, Fla., after all seven POWs landed at Fort Bliss.
On Sunday, President Bush visited the pilots and their families, saying he had "a good talk with them. Good, strong men."
Williams said the meeting "was an absolute honor."
Added Young: "We stand 100 percent behind whatever our president decides to do. We're honored to serve him. And this is definitely one of the highlights of my life, absolutely."
Mr. Bush said he was not worried that anti-U.S. demonstrations led by religious leaders in Iraq might hurt rebuilding efforts.
"Freedom is beautiful, and when people are free, they express their opinions. And, you know, they couldn't express their opinions before we came. Now they can," he said.
For many of the rescued soldiers, homecoming meant basking in life's little joys — a daughter's tresses or a home-cooked meal.
"The only thing he's talked about was if his little girl's hair had grown," said Williams' uncle Russell Tucker. "That was the first thing he asked."
After the ceremonies were over, Williams and Young were whisked away from the gaze of TV cameras and jubilant well-wishers to spend their first night at home with family.
The five other rescued POWs were spending Saturday night at Fort Bliss to undergo evaluation by doctors from nearby William Beaumont Army Medical Center.
For Williams, Saturday marked only the third night he has spent in the home that he, his wife, and his two young children, 2-year-old Jason and 6-month-old Madison, moved into days before he was deployed in January.
The house has since been landscaped, fenced, and the front lawn now features a stone monument to the Apache pilot's captivity and rescue.
About 20 of Williams' family members planned to be together Sunday for an Easter lunch, said Tucker, who wore a red, white and blue button with his nephew's picture and kept a digital camera handy to show off pictures of the pilot's two children.
Williams and Young were escorted down a red carpet to a swarm of overjoyed friends and relatives who exchanged hugs and handshakes with them. The crowd cheered and clapped amid the tumult of a brass band's military tunes.
"I'm speechless. It feels good to be home and let's keep praying for all those soldiers who are still fighting. God bless America. I love you," Williams, 30, said to a standing ovation. He hugged his wife Michelle, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, as he stepped down from the podium.
At Fort Bliss, as the plane taxied along the tarmac, two of the former POWs, Spc. Joseph Hudson and Pfc. Patrick Miller, poked their heads through a hatch on top of the plane, holding an American flag and waving to the crowd.
Hudson bounded off the plane, hugged his wife Natalie and scooped up his 5-year-old daughter, Cameron. The other returning soldiers also greeted loved ones, who gathered under the tail of the plane.
Spc. Shoshana Johnson gripped a flag in each hand and hopped on one leg as she was helped onto a golf cart. She had been shot in both ankles during the ambush.
The cart then took the five POWs from the 507th Maintenance Company on a victory lap in front of the overjoyed crowd, which occasionally broke into chants of "USA! USA!" Hudson jumped off at one point and said "This is a great country. God bless America!"
All seven POWs had been recuperating at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany since Wednesday. They were rescued April 13, when Iraqi captors abandoned their posts ahead of advancing American troops.
The Fort Bliss soldiers were captured and nine comrades were killed in a March 23 attack near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Another member of the 507th, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was rescued separately in a daring commando raid April 1 and continues to recuperate in Washington, D.C.
The Fort Bliss soldiers are Hudson, 23, Alamogordo, N.M.; Johnson, 30, El Paso, Texas; Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, Mission, Texas; Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, Park City, Kan.; and Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J.
Williams and Young are with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division.
Col. Glenn Mitchell, commander at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, said it could take between two to four days beginning Monday before the Fort Bliss soldiers are cleared to go home.
Families of the soldiers expressed joy that the nightmare was over.
"We cannot tell you how excited we are. It was just devastating what we went through and all of a sudden it's like the sun coming up after a stormy night," said Tucker, Williams' uncle.