SAVANNAH, Ga. -- After eight months in the Iraqi desert, Specialist 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 Madison 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 Thanksgiving, but everybody was worried whether we would make it or not."
With thousands of US troops home from the war months ago and thousands more still fighting its aftermath, soldiers in the 260th Quartermaster Battalion did not 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 on 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, Masterson's mother in Bedford, Va. "It's a happy time, but a bittersweet time."
As for her son, Carolyn 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."
Captain 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.
"You kind of see holidays as benchmarks," said Captain 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 plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving at home with his wife, Jenni, and 2-year-old son, Jacob.
Fields said he is 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."
Sergeant Veronica Calloway, a personnel administrator, will be heading home to Wallace, N.C., for her large family's traditional Thanksgiving gathering. Someone important, however, will be missing -- her husband, who will remain in Iraq until December.
She and her husband, Staff Sergeant 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 on 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 Third Infantry Division returned from Iraq at summer's end, Army cooks prepared for their biggest meal of the year for soldiers who could not 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 cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is 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.