Exhausted yet exhilarated, Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, returned Monday night to Camp Pendleton after seven months of combat, death and survival in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of family members holding signs and waving American flags waited on a parade deck for 250 members of the battalion.
Known as the Dark Horse Battalion, the unit suffered 24 killed in action and more than 175 wounded as it fought to wrest control of the Sangin district in the Helmand province from the Taliban.
In deference to the battalion's losses and its battlefield successes, Marine brass made sure this homecoming was even more festive than most. Amplified music — including country-western, hip hop and big band — blared from speakers as nervous family members waited.
"I just can't believe it, that today is really here," said Katie Cascino, 18, whose fiance is Cpl. Marcus Ferry, 25. "The days have just been so long."
Jennie McFarling was there as an "official hugger" for Marines without family members waiting.
McFarling, 59, of Escondido, said she was there to take her mind off the fact that her son, an Army soldier, was deploying Monday night to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
"I'm here to try to forget that and what lies ahead," she said.
Several young mothers held babies that were born during their fathers' deployment. One banner read, "I've Waited My Whole Life to Meet You! Welcome Daddy."
Many of the family members were from Southern California; others had traveled from across the country. Pam and Johnny Wiley had come from Athens, Ga., to meet their son, Cpl. Adam Wiley, 22.
"It's been pure hell waiting for him all these months," Pam Wiley said. "We've been so proud, but also so scared."
Kelsey Robinson, 18, was there to meet her husband, Cpl. Miles Robinson, 22. The couple married a month before he deployed.
"The hardest part," she said, "has been waking up every morning and not seeing him there."
A cheer went up as the six buses arrived just before 8 p.m. The Marines had arrived hours earlier at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County.
Among those in the crowd were several Marines who were wounded early in the deployment and sent home for rehabilitation.
Lance Cpl. Mark Meirink, 21, lost his right leg in January when he stepped on a roadside bomb. He now has a prosthetic and is receiving therapy at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
Meirink said he hopes to remain in the Marine Corps and is prepared to return to Afghanistan. "Absolutely," he said.
Despite losing more personnel in combat than any of the Corps' other battalions in the 10-year war, the Marines said they felt their deployment was a success.
"We did our job — we never doubted that we'd do it," Lance Cpl. Jerome Davis, 19, said as he held his month-old daughter, Janecia, for the first time.
More Marines from the battalion will return home in the coming weeks.