While U.S. Army Maj. Frank Fair was away in Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar, his 7-year-old daughter lost her front teeth and learned to write letters.
Wearing a red, white and blue sundress, Katherine said she couldn't wait to give him a hug.
His 4-year-old son had to have surgery after getting his hand caught in an escalator.
Nikolas, who saved a spot on his cast for his father to sign, said he couldn't wait to play again with his dad.
The two, with their 38-year-old mother, Kristen, gathered with other families in a parking lot on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, eagerly awaiting the return of 21 soldiers of the 1st Battlefield Coordination Detachment. With mere minutes marking the end of a year apart, some held balloons and gift baskets. Others waved handmade banners.
The fact that their return coincided with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which brought so many American soldiers to Middle East soil in the first place, added a sobering level of complexity to relief and elation.
While proud of her husband's sacrifice and contribution, Kristen acknowledged it's been difficult raising the children by herself, especially since she's been preparing for the family's move to Germany in two weeks.
"Army wives have to find strength for their families. They'll find it in their little toe if they have to," she said.
She teared up briefly as she noted she used to work in the World Trade Center and had friends killed in the attacks. "So it's hard for me to be happy today. It's a good day and a sad day all wrapped up in one," she said.
Louise Griswold, 41, also fought back tears as she waited, noting that even in her joy at the return of her husband of 18 years, she spent part of the morning in prayer for the families harmed in the attacks.
"My heart's broken for the American people, but I have to think about what's at hand - that my husband is home and safe," she said.
Thirteen-year-old Michael said he hoped soon to go hunting with his father, Mike Griswold. The family decorated the house, made a mess of ribs, and drew messages in chalk along the route to their house, saying, "You're almost home."
And then it was time, marked by the sirens of a police escort leading an otherwise unremarkable white bus.
Families whooped when the soldiers disembarked. "I can tell that's him by the way he walks," one wife told a friend. Another remarked, "He looks so tired."
They gathered briefly, yet certainly interminably, in formation. And then came the magic word, "Dismissed," and the rigid professionalism melted into sprints and hugs.
The soldiers are off until Tuesday, when they will begin a seven-day family reintegration training, with half-day schedules.
Fair wasn't too surprised at the growth in his children, thanks to the miracle of Skype video calls on the Internet. But it was wonderful to hug them.
Sgt. Evan Spayd, 26, said he missed his wife, Marivic, the most, teasing her that he missed her cooking particularly. Marivic, who is from the Philippines, learned to drive and got her license in his absence.
Asked what else he missed, Spayd said the vegetation. Sure, Tucson's a desert, he said, but compared to Qatar's sand and flatness, Tucson's trees and scrubby brush make it a veritable oasis.
The anniversary carried some extra meaning for the two.
"It marked the time when everybody was going out," Evan Spayd said. "And now we're coming back. In a way, it's a little symbolic."
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or email@example.com