SAVANNAH, Ga. --- The last time Spc. Joshua Parks came home from a tour in Iraq, he didn't have the warm embrace of a wife or the happy faces of family surrounding him.
"I was just happy to be home," he said.
But on Monday night, the soldier had 17 family members and friends awaiting him.
His wife, Jennifer Parks, darted from the bleachers and searched frantically among the 139 soldiers from the 416th Transport Co., a tenant unit stationed at Hunter Army Airfield. She planted a large kiss on his lips and held onto his hand as she led him back to his family.
The couple had been married only five months before he deployed.
"Thank God for Yahoo and Webcams," Mrs. Parks said moments earlier.
Her in-laws -- Joshua's dad and stepmother, Alfred and Carol Parks -- stood in the bleachers and shouted directions to assist her search.
Observing it all was Lavon Howell, the one Spc. Parks didn't expect. His one and only "Mema."
"I think he will be very, very surprised," Ms. Howell said about a half-hour before the soldiers marched single-file into the gymnasium at Hunter Army Airfield. "I used every excuse in the world as to why I couldn't come."
She even pulled the trump card: a fall earlier in the year injured her arm.
"I'm supposed to be having 'surgery' tomorrow," Ms. Howell said with a wink. "At least that's what we all told him."
The soldier's wife had been planning the welcome home celebration since last September.
She bought camouflage T-shirts for all the family members and friends. She painstakingly ironed on individual letters, giving everyone titles, such as "Parks Wife," "Parks Mema" and "Parks Friend." She and another soldier's wife made 17 shirts in all.
They were clustered together in the bleachers Monday night, among bunches of red, blue and yellow balloons and handmade posters with phrases such as "My Boyfriend's Back" and "Welcome Home Our Hero."
Scattered across the gymnasium floor were baby strollers -- nearly a dozen in a far corner alone. In the stands, toddlers squirmed and wailed as the wait became unbearable.
As the soldiers marched into the gymnasium, they snuck glances toward the stands. Claps and cheers drowned out the marching drum cadence played over the sound system.
Ms. Howell started to jump up and down as the troops marched into formation.
She fought back tears as the national anthem played. She lost the battle on the last verse, as loved ones in the stands squeaked out the final verse, voices ripe with emotion and anticipation brought on by 15 months of deployment in central Iraq.
"You have much to be proud of," Lt. Col. Joe Dixon said as he addressed his troops. "You drove millions of miles, safely."
It was 5 million miles, when it was all said and done, Capt. Kendrick Powell said.
"We were pushing MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) north of Baghdad," he said. "They did great. They're glad to be back, but ready to go back if called to."
But for now, Spc. Parks is just glad to be home.
"I was pretty surprised as far as seeing my grandmother here," he said. "But I had an idea she'd be here."