"I'm not sure how much help I was," Vencill, 28, said of his remote role at the bedside of his wife, Jamie, during a five-hour labor that ended in the June 26 birth of their son, Kaiden.
With the war over in Iraq, Vencill, a National Guardsman who lives in Bel Air, is among the thousands of troops who won't have to miss additional milestones, making it home in time for the holidays.
"I'm really glad to be home for Christmas, mainly because of my son," Vencill said. "I didn't want to miss his first Christmas."
Whether it's a child's first holiday or a generations-old tradition, the season's joys are particularly meaningful this year for families who have welcomed home loved ones from service, not only from the just concluded war in Iraq but also the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
For many returning service members, their first steps on the homefront are at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, a particularly busy entry point for charter flights ferrying troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
With as many as five such flights a day, the lower level of Concourse E played host to countless happy reunions last week. Family and friends, along with volunteers from Operation Welcome Home Maryland, cheered and mobbed the returning service members, many of whom seemed dazed by both the festive crowd and the realization of how much time had passed since they last saw their loved ones.
"This one's almost as tall as me," marveled Air Force Master Sgt. David Duthu as he tousled the hair of the oldest of his three sons, 11-year-old Austin.
The Chesapeake Beach family had waited mostly patiently — the exception being two-year-old Aiden, who was up way past his bedtime — late Wednesday night, as seemingly every one of the 357 service members and civilians on the flight from Ramstein Air Base in Germany made it through customs and baggage claim before Duthu.
He had been texting his wife, Lacey — "just one more bag" — from behind security, before finally emerging to the saucer-eyed excitement of his sign-waving older sons.
"U the Man! Glad you're home," said Austin's sign, to which this member of the texting generation added his version of a heart: <3. "Welcome back #1 Dad," said 9-year-old Alex's sign.
A medic serving the past six months in Kandahar, Duthu was supposed to remain in Afghanistan until next year, but was able to get home earlier, in time for Christmas and to help pack up the family's home for a transfer to his next posting, an air base in Illinois.
Each opening of the double doors separating the secure area produced another flurry of squeals and hugs, a scene made even more festive by the airport's towering Christmas tree decorated in blue and silver and a Santa Claus occasionally bleating a holiday tune on a bagpipe.
One member of an airborne unit came through, found her guy in the crowd and hugged him tight, jumping up to wrap her legs around his waist. Other passengers, troops in desert camouflage and civilians on holiday leave with their children in footie pajamas and pets in crates, streamed by on either side of the private island of two.
Sometimes the reunions are preludes to nuptials.
"I've seen five proposals myself," said Bud Laumann, 69, one of the Operation Welcome Home Maryland team leaders who organizes volunteers to greet the returning service members, offer them handshakes, goodie bags of snacks and help with their luggage.
John and Audrey Lee of Annapolis were at BWI to reclaim their 20-year-old son, John, an airman who returned from an 18-month tour in Turkey.
"MagicJack, Skype, Facebook, you name it," the elder John Lee, an Annapolis police detective, said of how they stayed in touch. Still, the couple added, nothing is like having him home in person for the holidays.