The group left one comrade behind - Cpl. Kristopher Daniel Greer, 25, of Ashland City, Tenn., killed by a roadside bomb in August. Greer's widow, Stacy, greeted each Marine as they stepped off the bus, her 2-year-old son, Ethan, in her arms.
Maj. Nathan Opie held his month-old son Dominic for the first time Monday night.
He hugged his wife, Lindsay, again and counted his daughter Hannah's missing teeth.
"I've missed so much," he said.
Staff Sgt. Byron Abner of Clinton went from the arms of his mother to his wife to his son. He'll spend the next few days giving thanks for them and all the things he did without.
"You can't understand it unless you've been there," he said. "We missed the mountains, the trees, the green grass. It's such a different place over there. It feels good to be back. It feels real good."
Opie, Abner and 32 other Marine reservists, members of Knoxville's Delta Company of the 4th Engineer Battalion, came home early Monday from seven months of combat duty in Afghanistan's Helmand province - just in time for Thanksgiving.
"We were actually told before that we might not be able to make it in time," said Lance Cpl. Caleb Clark of Ten Mile. "So getting here a few days before and being able to enjoy it with everybody - I can't even describe it. It's unbelievable."
They returned just as another group of Marines prepare to leave. About 40 more members of Delta Company expect to deploy to Afghanistan in May, 1st Lt. Andrew Frick said.
The bus pulled into the Naval Reserve Center parking lot on Alcoa Highway on Monday just before 6 p.m. to cheers, hugs and tears from family, friends and strangers.
"This is the most unprepared but prepared I've ever been," said Ashleigh Park as she waited for her boyfriend, Lance Cpl. Zachary Baker of Knoxville. "I feel like just yesterday I stood here and said goodbye. Now it's almost like a dream come true that he's finally home. It's been a long seven months."
The Marines left home on New Year's Day for training in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and deployed to Afghanistan this spring. They spent their tour scattered across the Helmand province, sweeping the roads for bombs and helping build berms and other fortifications.
"We were scattered to the winds," said Abner, the staff sergeant. "We were based along the canals in the farmland to the south with the desert on both sides of us."
The fast-paced work - which included destroying more than 300 roadside bombs - and remote location left little opportunity for phone calls, e-mail, Facebook messages or other missives home. Some loved ones waited as long as four or five weeks between calls.
"I never thought I'd miss my civilian job as a bartender," Baker said. "But the worst day here was better than the best day there."
Clark and his wife, Rachel, had married just six days before he left home.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever gone through," she said. "I felt like the day he left was the worst day of my life, but this feels like the best."
Some couples resorted to such old-time communication tactics as writing letters.
"We had to go back to pen and paper," said Katie Pagnani, waiting for her boyfriend, Cpl. Chris Ross of Brentwood. "He wrote about all the little things he missed. One thing he really missed was the food. He's looking forward to some biscuits and gravy."
The Marines gathered inside for one last formation before the order everyone waited for - "Dismissed!"
Some Marines plan to travel, others to hang around home and catch up. Jessica Langley saved a stack of movies for her boyfriend, Lance Cpl. Justin Roach of Lenoir City.
"I think we'll start with 'Avatar,' " she said. "He's missed a lot."
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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Maj. Nathan Opie is greeted by his wife, Lindsay, and his newborn son, Dominic. Opie and other members of Knoxville's Delta Company of the 4th Engineer Battalion of the Marines returned home Monday from Afghanistan.
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