Alerted via Facebook, connected by Skype, Joseph Vencill was able to "be" in the delivery room for the birth of his first child even though he was serving in Iraq at the time. Still, there's only so much you can do by satellite.
"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.