Eight-year-old Mercedes Barnes couldn't wait one more second to see her daddy. As the rest of her family and friends hung back Thursday to let Staff Sgt. Jason Barnes get in the door, Mercedes burst forward, dodging through the crowd and wrapping herself around his legs.
Seconds later, her younger sister, Georgia, 3, and mother, Jennifer Barnes, 30, rushed in for their hugs and kisses as the clapping and hollering reached a crescendo inside the dining room at the Arizona Army National Guard facility near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
After eight months away from home, Jason Barnes, a Chandler resident, and 32 other members of the Guard arrived home from Iraq in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
"I'm feeling like the days my daughters were born times 10, and probably the day I got married on top of that," a smiling Jason Barnes said as he ran his hand over Georgia's silky hair.
Georgia and Mercedes wore white dresses adorned with replicas the American flag — dresses made by Jennifer's mother in honor of the occasion.
Jason Barnes, 31, is a member of Company G, 285th Aviation Regiment 57. While in Iraq, he and his colleagues provided air traffic control service to rotor and fixed-wing aircraft. Many of them served in the "heart of the Sunni Triangle," near Baghdad, Jason Barnes said.
Company G, which left Arizona in March, is the first group of Arizona Army National Guard to arrive home.
While it normally takes a week for soldiers to be "demobilized," Arizona National Guard spokeswoman Maj. Eileen Bienz said the Army accommodated the group by pushing them through the process during a daylong session in Fort Hood, Texas.
They were expected to arrive home last week, but their transport plane broke down in three places and they were held over five times, said Sgt. 1st Class Athanasios Paletsos, 42, of Chandler, who also returned home Thursday.
"I'm just thrilled. I'm thrilled and delighted to be home and blessed that it's on this special day," Paletsos said.
Greeting Paletsos, an 18-year military veteran, were his wife, Cindy, 46, and their son, Nikos, who turns 3 today.
"He was barely talking when I left and now he's talking like a little man," Paletsos said as he tossed the tow-headed tyke into the air.
The Paletsoses and the Barneses said they were planning to spend Thanksgiving Day by themselves. Family celebrations, they said, could be put off a day.
"I'm overjoyed he's finally home after nine months, but I'm also very proud for what he's done," Cindy Paletsos said. "I also feel sad for the people who still have loved ones over there and for those who are going to be deployed in the next couple of months."
Gov. Janet Napolitano also was on hand to welcome the men home, and she thanked them for their service.
"It's been a terrific sacrifice for them," Napolitano said as she awaited the plane's arrival. "They've been gone since March and in-country since May and as we know, being in-country is very dangerous duty. We've lost 13 Arizonans over there."
Fifteen additional soldiers from Company G are expected to arrive home in March, said Veronica Meyer, family readiness coordinator. In all, 1,270 Arizona Army and Air National Guard members are on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the United States.