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For these military families, a special homecoming from Iraq

Thousands of U.S. troops are returning home this month - many sooner than expected, to the delight and sometimes surprise of their families. At Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, about 3,400 soldiers are making the long journey home. NBC's Janet Shamlian reports.

FORT BLISS, Texas -- The auditorium-style room at Fort Bliss is full of families and heavy with anticipation.

Everyone here has a mother or father, son or daughter they haven't seen in months ... about to come home.

With the drawdown of US troops from Iraq, these welcome home ceremonies are happening every few days at Fort Bliss as some 3,400 soldiers from the 4th Brigade head back to Texas. To attend one, as I did Tuesday, was a reminder of the sacrifice made by our military families.

Byron Isler sat by himself with a bouquet of flowers, both nervous and full of excitement. Even though he and wife Thomasine were both stationed in Iraq, they never once saw each other there. Byron returned to El Paso last month. They have a 7-year-old son who has been without his parents for far too long.

Cynthia Medrano sat nearby, surrounded by her mother, her sister and her three young daughters. Carlos Medrano is returning from his fourth and final deployment to Iraq. He's missed so many of the girls' birthdays and school performances, but at least this year he won't miss Christmas.

And then there is Ashley Hopkins, who told her 6-year-old Lillian and 3-year-old Kaitlyn that they'd come to the event to welcome someone ELSE'S father home. The truth would be revealed to the girls in just a few minutes, when Brian Hopkins would step off the plane and into their arms.

PhotoBlog: As US exits, Iraqis tell how their lives have changed

For many of these families, there will be future deployments and more time away from loved ones. But at least this Christmas, mommy or daddy will be home. How will they spend the holidays, I wanted to know. It was heartbreaking to hear one mom of a toddler explain that her family is tight on cash and wasn't going to decorate or get a Christmas tree until they learned Dad was coming home.

Most poignant from the afternoon with these families was one young woman's comment. She said she knew her husband would come home from Iraq, but now she knew he would be coming home alive.

The reunions were as you'd expect: tearful and joyous. Bearing witness from the corner of a room, I felt the same. The holiday is just short of two weeks away. But for these families, Christmas came today.