Just a few weeks ago, Staff Sgt. Jason Baker wasn't sure whether he'd be eating Christmas dinner around the table with his family in Chico – or in a chow hall in Shindand, Afghanistan.
Baker and nearly 200 other members of the California Army National Guard's 2668th Transportation Company, based in Oroville, had been in Afghanistan since March, where they were responsible for running supplies between U.S. military bases.
This Christmas, about 1,230 soldiers and airmen with the California National Guard are deployed overseas, said Jonathan Masaki Shiroma, a spokesman for the California Military Department.
Then came the good news for Baker: His unit would be coming home mid- December.
"I was very lucky," Baker said Tuesday.
"For the whole year we've been crossing our fingers and hoping I'd make it back. It's my son's first Christmas, so that's a big deal."
The young Baker family – 10-month-old Braiden, 2-year-old Jacob and Baker's wife, Aridelci – celebrated Christmas Day with an early breakfast of bacon and eggs. Then came a trip to his mother's house to exchange gifts and enjoy a ham dinner. There were toys for the children and warm clothes for an upcoming trip to the snow.
"Coming back here, life seems a lot faster-paced. It's hard to keep up. The cars are moving fast, the shopping season is crazy," Baker said. "It's fantastic to be at home, and I think that is clouded, at time, by anxiety."
It's not uncommon for returning service members to feel anxious, irritable or depressed, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Most veterans go through some period of adjustment while transitioning to civilian life, but ultimately find their new roles fulfilling. However, some people deal with the transition in ways that make it difficult to enjoy life or to be successful in the civilian world," says a Veterans Affairs website with advice for returning service members (maketheconnection.net).
Baker's father has also served in war zones as a National Guard member, he said, so he's been able to find support from him. And his wife knows about life at war, too – they met when both were serving in Iraq in 2008.
Their love story, Baker said, was "that classic – she's a truck driver, and I'm a mechanic."
Baker said he is enjoying reconnecting with his family while trying not to feel overwhelmed. "The feeling of being around everybody and seeing everybody, it's a lot to take in," he said. "Especially because I'm also simultaneously getting to know my new son."
Baker said he's still learning which cries mean the baby is hungry, and which ones mean he's hurt. Braiden is just beginning to take his first steps, but his dad missed many other firsts in 2012: when the baby rolled over, held his own bottle, giggled.
Aridelci Baker said managing the two little boys on her own was hard while her husband was away. Simple chores like going to a doctor's appointment or the grocery store were a lot more complicated without an extra set of hands.
"It's been awesome that he's been here," she said. "It's nice not having to go to bed every night by yourself. You have someone to help you. It's nice having my husband home with me. It completes the family."