FORT STEWART, Ga. — Nearly 5 months old, Ryder Pirkola went to meet his father Tuesday wearing a matching Santa shirt and britches. All that was missing was a bow on his head.
“It’s the first time his dad has seen him, so it’s his Christmas present,” said Brittney Pirkola, the infant’s mother, as she waited with hundreds of others at Fort Stewart’s parade grounds for her husband and members of his Army unit to return home after nine months in Afghanistan.
It was an early Christmas of sorts for about 200 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, and their families. Pvt. Marcus Pirkola of L’Anse, Mich., was nearly speechless after his wife handed him their baby boy for the first time. She was five-months pregnant when he deployed overseas in March.
“Yeah, it’s something,” he said. “It’s great. Just great.”
The returning soldiers were among the first from the Fort Stewart-based 3rd Infantry Division to deploy to Afghanistan. The division had previously focused on Iraq, where its units served four combat tours before that war ended a year ago.
A big reason the soldiers will get to spend the holidays at home is because they got to serve a shorter tour — nine months in Afghanistan as opposed to the full year they were accustomed to spending in Iraq.
Not that it seemed short. Staff Sgt. Kevin Bonino’s daughter, 18-year-old Samatha Ciminnisi, greeted him in a T-shirt that said: “I’ve waited 258 days for my dad.”
“Christmas is one of the most important holidays for us, so it’s good to be home for it,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Edwards as his four children, ages 5 to 10, wrapped their arms around his waist and legs.
Going to Afghanistan marked Edwards’ fourth wartime deployment. The 34-year-old soldier from Elkhart, Ind., said he twice spent the holidays away from his family while deployed to Iraq.
Edwards’ wife, Heidi, said he would be coming home to a new truck — a 2013 Ford Explorer — as well as a new Shih Tzu puppy. Meanwhile, she planned to get him to help her finish shopping for their children. The family decorated three palm trees in the front yard with Christmas ornaments, and they were looking forward to a family vacation to Orlando, Fla., the day after Christmas.
“On the 26th!” said Edwards’ 7-year-old son, Layton.
Located near Savannah and the Georgia coast, Fort Stewart doesn’t have the most Christmas-like climate. As the soldiers arrived late Tuesday morning, the temperature was 68 degrees and unseasonably humid.
Dachanna McCampbell, 20, didn’t let the balmy weather dampen her holiday spirit. She showed up to greet her boyfriend, Pfc. Scott Malena, with a large sign made to catch his eye: “Lookin’ For My Santa Baby.”
“It’s very, very exciting. I missed him like crazy,” said McCampbell, who stayed in touch with her deployed boyfriend on Facebook. “He asked me what I want for Christmas and I was a dork. I sent him a link to a Mariah Carey song — ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You.’”