Like many new dads, Sgt. Brandon Niles seemed a little unsure when his baby was placed into his arms for the first time. His son sat up straight and quickly searched Niles' face with a steady gaze, then reached his arms out for his mom.
"He wants you," Niles said to his fiancée after holding his first child for a few seconds, surrendering the blond, hazel-eyed bundle.
Niles was understandably overwhelmed by meeting his 10-month-old son Sunday afternoon at Sacramento International Airport. Braeden was born March 20, three days after Niles, 35, was deployed to northern Afghanistan with his National Guard unit.
While serving in Afghanistan as a truck driver and sharpshooter, he tried to keep up with Braeden's growth via the Internet, but access was sometimes spotty.
"It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," Niles said of the separation, as he hugged family and friends at the airport. His loved ones had shown up to greet him at the bottom of the Terminal B escalator with welcoming shouts, small flags and hand-printed banners.
Niles, a painting contractor, said it was difficult missing his son's first months of life.
"I can't get that time back," he said. "I wanted so badly to see him when he was smaller, like the size of a football. Hopefully, he won't even remember that I was gone."
Niles said he doesn't know how, when or if he will share his wartime experiences with his first-born. His unit was responsible for closing down military bases. "Maybe if he decides to join the military someday, we can talk about it," he said.
Niles' fiancée, Janell Mosley, said she was dejected when she didn't deliver their child in time for Niles to meet him before being deployed.
"It's been a really, really hard year, definitely tough," said Mosley. She stayed with family for most of Niles' absence.
But his Sacramento family is grateful to have Niles back on American soil.
"We just thank our lucky stars," said his brother Cameron Niles. "I'm excited, ecstatic for him. The feeling is indescribable."
"I'm just so happy to have him home safe," said his tearful mother, Annette Niles.
By late Sunday afternoon, the family, including 4-year-old Joshua, Mosley's son from a previous marriage, was already making up for lost time.
"They are playing and getting along great," Mosley said of the three men in her life. "It's exciting to watch them get to know each other."