Other than a gourmet meal of prime rib and lobster tails, Chief Warrant Officer Joey Gagnard's Christmas last year was no more special than any other day on the calendar.
"They made a much bigger deal out of the Super Bowl than Christmas," he says of his holiday celebration while deployed in Iraq with the 297th Military Intelligence Battalion. "There was work that had to be done."
Fast-forward a year, and the opposite could not be more true.
Sunday was a uniquely moving morning for the Gagnards, who opened gifts for the first time as a foursome. Chief Warrant Officer Gagnard's yearlong overseas service ended last month, and his 9-month-old daughter, Madeline, was enjoying her first Christmas alongside her 3-year-old brother, Benjamin.
"It's just so much easier to have him back here," said their mother, Kelly Gagnard, from their Augusta home. "We're just enjoying being together as a family."
The couple met in Germany while both were in the military. They married five years ago after just a few months of dating.
Originally from Arizona, the couple moved to the Garden City in 2004. Almost immediately, Chief Warrant Officer Gagnard was sent to Baghdad to take part in counterterrorism missions.
The relocation was challenging for everyone, but Chief Warrant Officer Gagnard said the family was able to keep in touch every day by e-mail, telephone or Web camera viewings.
In March, when Mrs. Gagnard was set to give birth to their daughter, her husband was able to return for four days to help with the delivery. After Madeline was safely home, Chief Warrant Officer Gagnard said, it was right back to Iraq until November, when his return home was for good.
The idea that Benjamin might not remember his father was a nagging fear that quickly disappeared, he recalled.
"Benjamin jumped right to me," he said. "He knew who I was for sure."
The past month was devoted to getting back into a routine and, of course, preparing for Santa's visit, Mrs. Gagnard said.
"We're just trying to get used to each other again," she said.
Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.