Sgt. Sharon Stallworth almost missed yet another holiday with her seven children.
Instead, she got to watch an elaborate airport dance routine in her honor by the Grant High School Pacerettes, led by her daughter Rakeal. She got to see, for the first time, her tiny granddaughter Sharyiah's wobbly steps. She got to hear the familiar, gentle teasing of her sons Willie and Markeal, who were visiting from college.
Then she got to celebrate at the Thanksgiving table with her special glazed ham, lots of side dishes and four generations of relatives.
"I'm just so happy to be here," said Stallworth, 42. "We are a family again."
Two long, difficult deployments to Iraq are behind her, the war is winding down, and Stallworth can "go back to being a mother," she said.
"I can't wait, but at the same time I have to admit it's a little scary," she said. "You're always wondering what will come next."
A single mom of children ages 5 to 22, Stallworth is a symbol of a generation of warriors who are leaving the battlefield. Tens of thousands of veterans like her will be returning from duty in Iraq before the end of the year, and more will be coming back from Afghanistan in 2012.
Some of the homecomings will be bittersweet, as soldiers bearing the scars of war struggle to adapt to civilian life. Many will need job training, intensive psychological counseling and physical therapy.
Stallworth, who has four years left before she retires from the California National Guard, has not emerged from the war unscathed. She has suffered hip and back injuries, a stroke and disabling migraines. Recently she began showing signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome that derailed her Iraq deployment and nearly kept her at Fort Dix in New Jersey for medical observation during the holiday.
Once she got the OK to travel, she hopped the first flight to Sacramento. A fellow passenger thanked her for her service and gave up his first-class seat to her. Butterflies danced in her stomach as she flew across the country, too excited to sleep.
As Stallworth floated down the escalator at Sacramento International Airport on Wednesday, wearing fatigues and carrying a bulky backpack, more than two dozen relatives and friends erupted with joy.
The Pacerettes dance team, in sparkly uniforms and white boots, spun and twirled to music thumping from a boom box. All of Stallworth's children were there, wearing shirts proclaiming "My Mom Fights For Freedom," "My Mom, My Heart, My Hero" and similar sentiments. "My heart is beating so fast!" Rakeal exclaimed.
As Stallworth's boots hit the floor, her children screeched and cried and smothered her in group hugs. Strangers took photos and asked to shake her hand. Stallworth stifled tears as her son Damarion, 5, sobbed and clung to his mom's uniform.
"Oh my God!" she said, greeting each loved one with a "I missed you!" or a "Look how tall you are!" and a kiss. She briefly joined the dance troupe and busted some moves. "I'm just so happy to be here! Hello Sacramento!" she exulted.
Job, country, family
In two weeks, Stallworth, 43, will be back on military duty. She will be stateside awhile, she said, but could go overseas again in the future. Afghanistan is a possibility.
"Hopefully not," she said with a wide smile. "But if it happens, I will go. I love my job and my country. That and my family mean everything to me."
During two tours in Iraq, where she most recently worked as a member of the motor pool, Stallworth has felt the boom of mortar fire and the brush of death. She has experienced blinding sandstorms and suffocating heat. She mourned the death of a soldier in her battalion whose body was blown up by a roadside bomb.
Lately, she said, Iraq seems more stable and secure, and she is proud of the military's accomplishments there.
But Stallworth's time away has been difficult on her children and her parents, who took the lead in caring for the youngsters.
In the years since she left for Iraq the first time, her daughters Nickeal and Sharveal have had children of their own. Her sons Willie and Markeal have gone off to college. Her two grandchildren have learned to walk. Her parents have battled illnesses. Her last brief trip to Sacramento was in June, "and it was very, very hard to see her leave again," said Nickeal, 21.
"She's missed so much," Nickeal said. "Baby showers. First birthdays."
When Nickeal developed depression after her baby's birth, "I really wanted my mom around," she said. But their communication was limited to short conversations over the phone from across the world.
Nickeal's grandmother, Joyce Smith, has filled in admirably, she said. "But a day never went by that I didn't miss my mom."
"Every experience, every reunion, brings us closer," Nickeal said. "But it's hard, because my mom is best friends with all of us. We are used to doing everything together."
A new understanding
Following her first deployment to Iraq in 2004, Stallworth's children had trouble sleeping, kept one of her uniform shirts close and clutched a photograph of their mom for comfort. They begged her to quit her job. Now that they are older, they have gained perspective.
"We understand now that she's doing all of this for us," said Willie, 18, who attends Fullerton College in Southern California. His brother goes to Columbia College in Sonora.
"I think my mom is a very brave woman," Willie said. "For her to leave everything that she has, everyone she loves, to do this, to me is amazing. And she always kept us tight."
"She has so much love for everybody, not just her family," said Markeal, 20. "She is like a mom to everyone."
After the airport reception on Wednesday, Willie and his siblings honored their mother's request for a trip to In-N-Out Burger, where she ordered a No. 2 with cheese and grilled onions.
They stayed up late Wednesday night, sharing news of school and work and friends and babies. Sgt. Stallworth fell asleep on the sofa.
On Thursday morning, she put on her civilian clothes and did what countless mothers do on Thanksgiving: She began preparing a feast.
She turned on the oven at her daughter's Natomas apartment. She started baking the ham, boiling eggs for potato salad and whipping up macaroni and cheese. The girls helped and sampled. The boys napped and watched TV.
Dinner was at Stallworth's mother's house in Del Paso Heights. The whole family, together again. For a while, war felt very far away.
"It feels good, so good, to be home and be a mom again," Stallworth said. "I'm going to enjoy it while I can."