Christmas morning had all the traditional trappings: tree, gifts, loving family.
Surrounded by his wife and children, Iraq war veteran Sgt. James Crisamore still felt a little uneasy at the Sunday gathering at his in-laws' Fair Oaks home.
It's been a year of intense challenges for Crisamore and his family, who have endured hardship and unusual heartache to be together. This Christmas Day felt like another small miracle.
"I hate the holidays," admitted the 28-year-old veteran, newly retired from the Army and holding his baby daughter, Harlow. "To me, (Christmas) is just another day."
"But to the rest of the family, having him home means so much," said his wife, Rachael Crisamore.
By the end of this week, an estimated 30,000 veterans will have returned from Iraq nationwide. Another 40,000 will return from Afghanistan next year.
Sacramento is home to many of them. This area has one of the highest concentrations of combat veterans in the United States, said Ugo Punteri, readjustment counselor at the Citrus Heights veterans center.
"Typically for combat veterans, holidays are very difficult for a number of reasons," Punteri said. "They may have been in the combat theater during past holidays when bad things happened. They may have lost buddies. They feel guilty. They have a difficult time being happy or joyful like the rest of us."
For now, the Crisamores live with her father, George Ornelas, and his partner, Connie Hughes. Connie's son, Jason, is now serving in the Army in Afghanistan. Her son-in-law also is about to be deployed.
In this Fair Oaks home, reminders of Army life decorate the walls with framed photos of smiling soldiers. Rachael's grandfather and uncles both served, too.
The family is coping with James' injuries and their infant daughter's illness. Born Valentine's Day, Harlow has cerebral palsy. Blind and epileptic, she's unable to hold up her head or crawl.
Jocelyne, age 3 1/2 , gave her little sister a big kiss on the forehead and her father another hug. She rubbed her nose against Harlow's short hair, cooing to her 10-month-old sister.
The girls also have a 5-year-old brother, Payton, who was visiting another relative Sunday.
"Jocelyne's first Christmas, James was in Iraq," Rachael said.
This year the child "made Santa cry," Rachael explained. "When Santa asked what she wanted, Jocelyne said, 'I just don't want my sister to die.' "
As he continues to recover from his own major injuries suffered in Iraq, James Crisamore campaigns relentlessly for his daughter's well-being.
The couple set up a blog page and non-profit fund (Hope 4 Harlow) to help pay for special medical equipment.
"I'm on the phone every day," James Crisamore said. "She'll probably always be like this. But there are a lot of good people out there."
Crisamore recently accepted medical retirement from the Army. During a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq, he was on combat patrol in 2008 when a rollover accident in a Humvee severely damaged both his hips.
"Otherwise, he would have stayed in the Army 20 years," Rachael said. "He was in the gun turret and was lucky enough to fall back into the truck or he would have been crushed."
Said James, "It was a career-ender. It's been really hard. I wish I could physically do (the job). I'm not sure what I'll do yet, but I'd like to help other people in situations like us."
For his own traumas, Crisamore found help via the Citrus Heights veterans center. He is one of nearly 5,000 disabled Iraq veterans who call the Sacramento area home.
"The veterans center saved my life," Crisamore said. "I would have been lost without their help."
This Christmas, the couple got good news.
Their VA home loan was finally approved Friday and they'll be able to get a place of their own. Their daughter's medical insurance also approved a special wheelchair to help her therapy.
Said Rachael, "This Christmas, we've been really lucky."