Families cheered and waved U.S. flags Friday as an airplane carrying the last large group of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers home from Afghanistan touched down at Pope Air Force Base.
The arrival of the Omni Air International flight around 10a.m. marked the return of almost the entire 82nd Airborne Division to Fort Bragg for one of the few times since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
About 200 paratroopers were on the flight.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Darrel Shanks and his wife, Colleen, drove 17 hours from their home in Bolivar, Mo., to see their 27-year-old son, Sgt. Darrel Shanks II, arrive home. It was the second time they had made the drive to welcome their son's return.
"This one hasn't been that bad," the elder Shanks said. He was a sergeant major in 3rd Special Forces Group who made several deployments to hot spots around the world during his own military career.
The 4th Brigade Combat Team had more than 3,500 paratroopers in southern and western Afghanistan since August 2009.
"No brigade was asked to do as much and (operate) as decentralized," said Col. Brian Drinkwine, the brigade commander. Drinkwine and Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Sturdevant returned last Saturday.
Thirty-eight Fort Bragg paratroopers died during the deployment. With other attached units, the task force grew to about 5,700. A total of 50 troops from the entire task force were killed and about 200 were wounded.
"We had twice as many Afghan Security Forces that fell in the line of duty, as well," Drinkwine said.
The brigade and other coalition forces worked to build up the Afghan National Security Forces, bolster the Afghan government, fight insurgents and improve the lives of the Afghan people.
"Every single day, whether it was western or southern Afghanistan, we had troops in contact, we had leaders doing 'key-leader' engagements or meeting with villagers and making a difference," Drinkwine said.
The brigade, known as Fury, worked in Kandahar, the heavily contested home of the Taliban, and surrounding provinces.
A brigade from Fort Carson, Colo., replaced the 4th Brigade.
Lt. Col. Bob O'Brien, the brigade's deputy commander, led the formation of paratroopers up the sidewalk to the passenger shelter at Green Ramp.
His wife, Michele, had been watching weather reports on Hurricane Earl, which had been threatening North Carolina for several days.
"It's wonderful to have him home," she said. "We're so proud of him."
There was talk about the hurricane and whether the flight would be able to arrive on schedule.
"We've got a few guys left that are bringing home some of our equipment," O'Brien said. "This was the last main-body flight of Task Force Fury paratroopers. So it's quite a thrill to bring them home."
Von Evans, 73, drove six hours from his home in Clinton, Tenn., to see his grandson, Staff Sgt. Joel Evans, return from his second deployment. The grandfather wore a specially printed white T-shirt with his grandson's name in large black letters.
"Me and granny had to come and see him," he said. "He looked good. He's been through a trying time, I know that. He's got two kids. He hasn't seen the little girl since she was about 3 months old. She's little over a year."