Thousands of military personnel and their families from bases in the Frankfurt area gave the 52 former American hostages an emotional send-off this morning for the last leg of their long journey home.
Many of the returning Americans reciprocated by shaking as many hands and hugging as many people as they could among the cheering, flag-waving crowd gathered on the runway here around the white presidential jet -- designated "Freedom One" and decorated with yellow ribbons -- that then carried them across the Atlantic.
"Home starts here," said Robert Ode, oldest of the freed hostages, as he made his way along, like many of the others, exchanging individual farewells with many of the first Americans they had met here Wednesday morning after flying out of Iran Tuesday.
"We love you," a woman in the crowd shouted to him.
"We love all Americans," Ode answered softly with a broad smile.
It's so beautiful to see you all here," said Charles Jones Jr., as he shook hands with well-wishers in the crowd.
The former hostages' long hair had been cut and beards trimmed or shaved off. The military men were wearing new dress uniforms carrying the insignia of promotions in rank they received during their 444 days in captivity. Many of the other men wore new suits, while some wore casual clothes under the fleece-lined Air Force parkas they were given on the hospital planes that had brought them here.
Before loading the buses that brought them to the air base this morning, they said goodbyes to the staff of the Air Force hospital in nearby Wiesbaden, where they spend the last week resting and receiving medical tests and psychological therapy.
The young Marines among them posed and gave celebratory shouts on a balcony outside their third-floor quarters above a banner that had welcomed them earlier this week.
Then the former hostages filed downstairs and out to the buses as hospital employes watched. "Barry, Barry," they shouted to Barry Rosen, one of the returnees who has become an easily recognized celebrity here. A nurse exchanged final words with one of the young Marines and then burst into tears as he boarded one of the buses and waves goodbye.
After the 20-mile ride here, many of the former hostages wandered away from the official welcoming party to mingle with the surrounding crowd of Americans. Several still looked gaunt and dazed, but most appeared in good health. Col. LeLand Holland, a short, ramrod-straight officer in a trim waist-fitted uniform, reached out for every beckoning hand and pair of open arms in the crowd as one of two military bands played "America the Beautiful" and "Let Freedom Ring."
Holland also hugged two nurses brought to the airfield from the hospital in Wiesbaden. He then was among the last to board the plane, tipping his hat to renewed cheers from the crowd.
As the plane taxied to takeoff, the crowd was still cheering, waving and holding up handwritten signs of farewell. Most said simply, "Best Wishes."