Joy comes hard to this windy, high desert city.
Even as its grateful residents spread a glaze of flapping yellow ribbons today to welcome home seven former prisoners of war, memories of nine soldiers who will never return tugged at their emotions.
It was just one week ago that thousands streamed to Fort Bliss to mourn those nine soldiers, who were killed March 23 in an ambush outside the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah. Today, many of the same people returned to the vast Army post, this time to celebrate the coming arrival of five Fort Bliss soldiers who were captured during the Nasiriyah ambush and two pilots from Texas's Fort Hood who were taken by Iraqi forces after their Apache helicopter was forced down the next day.
Toddlers balanced on their fathers' shoulders waved tiny American flags in the crowd that pressed against ropes strung along the runway at Fort Bliss. Aging veterans in pressed World War II uniforms took seats in the front row alongside young military wives, who stood on tiptoe, squinting into the late-afternoon sun.
Every few minutes, someone started chanting, "U-S-A, U-S-A," and everyone followed, their voices bouncing off the asphalt.
The chants intensified as the faint outline of a plane appeared in the darkening sky over Fort Bliss.
"Landing takes so long," a woman said to no one in particular.
Once on the ground, the giant C-17 cargo plane made a series of long, lazy loops around the landing strip, as if it were showing off for the crowd waiting behind the ropes.
Suddenly, an American flag came into view, affixed precariously to the top of the huge plane. As it drew closer, another image came into focus: a single soldier, dressed in combat fatigues, emerging from a hatch on the top of the plane and thrusting his arms into the air. It was almost too much for the crowd to take. They screamed until they were hoarse.
Finally, after minutes that seemed like hours, the back of the plane opened up, and the long-awaited prisoners of war strode down the ramp. They were a bit too far away for the crowd to see at first, but Tulara Hare was getting reports over her cell phone from a friend at home watching television, and she ticked off a detailed play-by-play.
"She's standing. She's standing. Shoshana's standing up," Hare said, referring to Spec. Shoshana N. Johnson, the soldier who was injured during the ambush and has captured the hearts of the military community here.
The soldiers stepped into an eight-seater golf cart and took a leisurely victory lap along the rope line, smiling and waving. Johnson was in the back, her right foot wrapped in a cast and sticking out behind the cart.
"We love you," Hare yelled as the cart eased past. Hare turned to her friends, military wives all, and said: "I don't know about you, but my throat is thrashed."
And, just like that, the soldiers were gone, escorted into a runway building, having for just a few moments, without saying a word, brought an entire community to its feet.
"Last week was a week of sorrow, and this week it's a celebration of joy and praise," said Leon Blevins, an El Paso Community College professor who wore the same Uncle Sam costume he donned years ago to lead thousands in dancing the "Macarena" during an appearance here by then-President Bill Clinton. "That's what we've gone through here, a roller-coaster."
In another time, the return of the POWs might have been an occasion for unabated elation for days. Instead, for many, it was a time for quiet reflection.
"We're still dealing with the deaths -- still reeling," said the Rev. Ed Roden-Lucero, pastor of San Juan Diego Catholic Church.
Roden-Lucero has spent the past weeks counseling the family of Pfc. Ruben Estrella-Soto, who was killed at Nasiriyah, days short of his 19th birthday. For all their sorrow, the teenager's parents, who live in an impoverished neighborhood known as a colonia outside El Paso, were "grateful and happy" that some of his colleagues would return, Roden-Lucero said.
"The reason they can feel that is because they knew the opposite feeling, because their son is not coming home," he said.
The soldiers took pride in forming buddy pairs, and Estrella-Soto was no exception. Ever since his maintenance unit left for Iraq, a car has been sitting in front of Estrella-Soto's house. It belongs to his buddy, Spec. Edgar A. Hernandez, 21, one of the prisoners of war who left Germany in a military transport plane this morning to return to a hero's welcome at Fort Bliss.
Miles away, in an urban El Paso neighborhood, purple ribbons were draped outside the house of another POW, Johnson, 30. Her father, a Desert Storm veteran named Claude Johnson, decided to veer from the traditional yellow ribbons, because purple is his daughter's favorite color.
Shoshana Johnson, boarded the military transport plane on a stretcher this morning, an unforgettable image that flickered repeatedly across television sets here. Johnson's 2-year-old daughter, Janelle, chattered happily and ran around her grandfather's living room as he prepared for a reunion that once seemed so uncertain.
"There's nothing in the world, except death, that could stop me from being there," Claude Johnson said of the welcome on the runway.
"Johnson's family has struck up a friendship with a local public relations agent, a fellow Panamanian native, Elsie Morgan, who has shielded them from a deluge of reporters. Morgan keeps a much-played videotape in her home. It shows a gathering of soldiers, preparing to leave Fort Bliss for Iraq. At the time, it seemed like an innocuous grouping. Many of the soldiers were nameless, faceless, to her. But now the tape seems priceless.
In the foreground is Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz., the first woman killed in combat in Iraq, Morgan said. A little child is tugging at her shirt, Morgan said.
But Morgan's gaze always drifts to the back of the shot, to a soldier she has never met. Now she knows that soldier is Shoshana Johnson, the woman everyone here knows as "Shana."
For weeks, Morgan has talked of little more than Shana. She smiles coyly when asked about the possibility of book or movie proposals in the offing. Once the cheers have subsided, Morgan said, Shana will tuck away in her father's home and decide what will come next. Whatever it is, Morgan said, it's bound to be good.
They have a saying here at Fort Bliss -- it is stenciled on overpasses and fences and airport signs and almost everywhere else that it will fit: "It's a great day to be a soldier."
There rarely has been a day when that was more true.