SAVANNAH, Ga. After eight months in the Iraqi desert, Spc. James Masterson returned home barely a week before Thanksgiving with plenty of reasons to be grateful.
The 23-year-old Army soldier had survived a war unscathed. Though he had trained troops in his unit in donning gas masks and protective suits, they had never come under chemical or biological attacks.
Masterson's parents came from Virginia to greet him as he stepped off the plane at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. And his wife brought along 3-month-old Madi-son Pearl, the baby daughter he had yet to meet.
''To see her for the first time and hold her for the first time, you can't really put into words how that feels,'' Masterson said. ''It's a big deal. We expected we would be home sometime around Thanks-giving, but everybody was worried whether we would make it or not.''
With thousands of U.S. troops home from the war months ago and thousands more still fighting its aftermath, soldiers in the 260th Quartermaster Battalion didn't know until two weeks ago whether they would celebrate Thanksgiving at Mom's dining room table or in desert mess halls.
Though 49 of them made it back Nov. 18, another 109 remain in Iraq, where the battalion transports fuel in 5,000-gallon tanker trucks to other Army units.
''A lot of people, Thanksgiving is going to be sad for them and we want to remember the troops who are still in Iraq,'' said Carolyn Masterson, Spc. Masterson's mother in Bedford, Va. ''It's a happy time, but a bittersweet time.''
As for her son, Mrs. Masterson said he looks like he was well fed in Iraq ''but I'm sure he's going to put on a few pounds between now and Christmas.''
''He's already requested some special things,'' she said. ''For breakfast he wants a lot of pork, any kind, any variety ham and what he calls fatback bacon. Fried eggs, not scrambled.''
Capt. Greg Brown, who commands many of the returning troops, said they worked day and night to pack gear and scrub vehicles for the return trip.
Getting home a week early not only meant soldiers would get a four-day holiday pass, but they would have time to make travel plans with family.
''You kind of see holidays as benchmarks,'' said Capt. Josh Fields, 26. '''Maybe I'll be home by Labor Day' and then, 'Maybe I'll be home in time to take my son trick-or-treating.' And now I'm back for Thanksgiving.''
Fields, a logistics officer, said he planned to spend a quiet Thanks-giving at home with his wife, Jenni, and 2-year-old son, Jacob.
Fields said he's also finding himself thankful for little things, such as grocery shopping which he used to consider a chore.
''I guess it's just all of those things you take for granted,'' he said. ''It's just the freedom to choose what you're going to eat.''
Sgt. Veronica Calloway, a personnel administrator, headed home to Wallace, N.C., for her large family's traditional Thanksgiving gathering. But someone important was missing her husband, who remains in Iraq until December.
She and her husband, Staff Sgt. Brett Calloway, both deployed in March and had to leave their 3-year-old son, Jeremiah, and their 7-month-old twins, Michael and Matthew, with her parents in North Carolina.
Both soldier-parents literally missed half the twins' young lives, including their first birthday July 24.
''I don't know how they're going to take me,'' Calloway said. ''I'm a little nervous. Especially, what if I try to pick them up and they cry?''
As for her husband, ''He's very military minded, so he's OK,'' Calloway said. ''I probably would have been crying.''
At nearby Fort Stewart, where the Army's 3rd Infantry Division returned from Iraq at summer's end, Army cooks prepared for their biggest meal of the year for soldiers who couldn't make it home.
Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield expected to feed as many as 4,000 single soldiers, Army families and retirees at their four dining halls with a full menu including turkey, ham and shrimp cocktail as well as corn-bread dressing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Army cooks consider Thanks-giving their Super Bowl, said Chief Warrant Officer John Nelums, the division food adviser who last year served turkey and trimmings in Kuwait to troops in tents.
It's a day when officers show up to serve food to their soldiers, and cooks are allowed to stray from strict recipe instructions to give the meal a more personal touch.
''We have a lot of soldiers who aren't able to get home, and that's one of the primary reasons we have this big meal,'' Nelums said. ''The soldiers that are preparing the meal just got back (from Iraq) themselves, so they are going to make sure it's more special. It's as special for them as it is for the guys that are serving.''
The small house on Hunter Army Airfield where Sgt. Leroy Sibley, 27, last week rejoined his wife, Mindy, and their three small boys packed for the holiday weekend. They thought some relatives might have to stay in hotels, but Mindy said, ''We'll make room. We've got air mattresses.'' Even if it's packed, ''It can't be as bad as a tent in Iraq,'' she said.
At dinner, Leroy Sibley's looked forward to his mother's Louisiana deep-fried turkey, his grandmother's homemade pumpkin cheesecake and sweet-potato pie and his mother-in-law's salads and side dishes. But he especially looked forward to time with family ''that's what Thanks-giving's all about.''
As he adjusts to life at home, there's more he's thankful for, his wife added. His own bathroom ''that he doesn't have to share with 100 other people,'' she said.
And, ''I know he's been glad to go to the fridge and get ice water without having to stand in line.''
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