Yellow ribbons lined Dumfries Road past the Manassas Armory, where everyone's eyes were fixed.
More than 400 friends and family members knew that Company A of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, was heading home -- July 28 had been circled on calendars for months -- and, in just a few moments, a cavalcade of police cars, motorcycles, big-wheel trucks and towering buses would trumpet a celebration that would last throughout the week.
"We'll have a party tonight with family, but the big one will be this weekend, with all of our neighbors and friends," Aida Muzo of Clifton said. "Party, party, party."
"Oh, come on already!" cried Rosa Suggs of Hampton, Va., bouncing on her toes. A few moments later she returned to staring at the narrow, empty road. "This is the first time I've been without him."
Both women have husbands among the more than 120 soldiers of the Virginia Army National Guard company, based in Manassas, that was mobilized to active duty in March 2004. After a few months of training in the United States, the soldiers went to Afghanistan last July. While there, they helped the new government restore order during the country's precarious transitional period.
They returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., July 16 and, after a couple of weeks of medical exams and administrative briefings, are heading north.
Kay Schifflett of Elkton, who arrived early to make signs, drove to Fort Bragg the previous week to see her 23-year-old son. Still, she said, home is where his bedroom is, as clean as he left it, and now she can finally sleep better at night. Her year-long anxiety started with a phone call from him soon after he arrived in Afghanistan, she said.
"You want a mother to sleep after her son calls her at 2 in the morning, saying he's been in a firefight?" said Schifflett, a single mother. "It was such a big moment for him, and for me."
The company returned home without three soldiers. Two died early on in a roadside bombing; another died of non-combat injuries.
"There were times when I couldn't look at a newspaper or see what was on the news, and then there were times when I'd be searching for it constantly," Schifflett said. "I'm glad that's over."
It's hard to say what came first -- the headlights of the first police escort or the eruption of cheers.
Video cameras, whether belonging to TV networks or grandparents, were rushed toward the parking lot to capture the first moments: a kiss, a deep hug, sometimes a speechless locking of eyes.
Suggs allowed her husband, Sgt. Michael Suggs, to break away for a brief moment.
"It was quite an experience," he said, standing close to two of his three sons. "It definitely changed me."
His mother smiling at him, Pfc. Brian Schifflett said what he discovered most in Afghanistan were the freedoms he took for granted at home.
Inside, the armory was filled with the sound of country music and lots of free food: baked potatoes, chicken wings, hot dogs and a variety of desserts, all donated by local businesses.
"There's a particularly good spread here," said Maj. Cotton Puryear, public affairs officer for the Virginia National Guard, who has been helping with many of the other 3rd Battalion homecomings across Virginia, from Winchester to Woodstock.
"What's great about this is seeing the local support out here," Puryear said.
Julie Barns of Manassas, who spent the past days making yellow ribbons, had no family among the soldiers but for weeks had been awaiting their return just the same.
"It shouldn't matter if your husband or son didn't get off that bus," Barns said. "Everyone should be here today."