Army Sgt. Justin Haggerty was 7,000 miles away from his wife and daughter last Fourth of July — with his canine partner, HHelotes, in Afghanistan, searching for explosives and helping to protect a U.S. Special Forces group from the enemy.
This year, Haggerty has a new mission: patrolling Fort Meade's Independence Day celebration.
He will report to duty at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, dressed in his combat uniform and boots laced up his ankles, to inspect vehicles that enter the base and scout the grounds with his new dog, Rodi.
"The Fourth of July is not a barbecue; it's a chance to remember why you're an American," Haggerty, 27, said Tuesday at the base in Anne Arundel County. "Why are we here today? Someone had to die for this."
More military families around the Baltimore region, like the Haggertys, are reunited this holiday; operations in Iraq have concluded, and the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan is winding down.
U.S. combat troops are set to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, and President Barack Obama has said 33,000 service members there will be back home by September of this year.
Haggerty, who is from the Bronx, N.Y., expects to return to Afghanistan for a second deployment, but until then, he's taking advantage of the time with his family.
Joanna Haggerty, 25, said her husband's year-long deployment was hard on her and their 3-year-old daughter, Joilee.
"It's real," Joanna Haggerty said. "You can't have the time back you had apart. Your kids grow up, and you can't have back a third birthday, a first Christmas. People really put their country before anything. What we're doing is making a difference."
Although her father returned in January, Joilee still fusses whenever her parents try to take down the hand-drawn "Welcome Home Daddy!!" sign tacked to the living room wall of their modest townhouse on base. And every time she sees an American flag, she calls it "DaDa's flag."
Joanna Haggerty's relatives, who live in Dundalk, helped out during his deployment. And she used Skype to communicate with her husband several times a week.
Still, she avoided the TV news and newspaper reports about Afghanistan, because they made her anxious. Instead, she waited for her husband to provide updates about his safety.
From her position growing up as the daughter of an Army soldier and becoming the wife of a sergeant, Joanna Haggerty said the Fourth of July has always been a favorite holiday of hers. And just hearing the lyrics of the "Star-Spangled Banner" — especially the line, "the home of the brave" — brings tears to her eyes.
Fort Meade garrison commander Col. Edward C. Rothstein said Independence Day is a chance for Americans to reflect.
"As a military installation, we've always seen July 4th as an opportunity to celebrate the freedom we've dedicated our lives to uphold and to remember the service men and women who are still in harm's way protecting those freedoms," he said in a statement.
"As we celebrate with friends and family, I challenge everyone to remember that we still have people in uniform around the world dedicated to protect our way of life."
More than 10,000 visitors came out last year for the Fort Meade fireworks show, which is set for 9:30 p.m. at McGlachlin Field. The event begins at noon and includes live music, carnival rides and food vendors. Families can also pack a picnic.
Rothstein said that those who come to the base can celebrate the holiday with "the members of Team Meade."
Justin Haggerty — who with his dog "Helo" has been awarded the Bronze Star for helping to protect U.S. troops — is proud of his contribution to the country's mission in Afghanistan. For now, his job is to protect dignitaries, including President Barack Obama.
He's also looking forward to a new relationship with "Helo." The 10-year-old Belgian malinois is transitioning into retirement and the Haggertys will keep him as a pet.
As the sergeant prepares for his Independence Day duties at Fort Meade, he is grateful to be with his family — and for the small things in life, like his cell phone, Utz potato chips and showers. After performing his duties, he plans to watch the fireworks and spend time with family and friends, and reflect.
"It's just a good day to be an American," he said.