MODESTO -- The U.S. military has fought for more than a decade in the Middle East, with troops sent to Afghanistan in 2001 and to Iraq in 2003.
This year, The Bee asked current military personnel from this area and their families to tell us what they are most grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day.
The simple joy of being home to celebrate the holiday rather than deployed overseas ranked high on their list, as well as thankfulness for a son's or daughter's safe return and love for family members.
Perhaps you will discover new reasons for being thankful as you read their stories. Here is what they had to say:
Erica Vasquez, 25, and her husband, Manny Vasquez, 26, moved to Modesto last week because Manny starts his job as a Marine recruiter here early next month.
The couple grew up in Dallas and were high school sweethearts before they married. Manny has served in the Marines for seven years, including two deployments to Iraq. They have two sons: Dominick, 6, and Alexander, 2.
"This year, I'm most thankful for the family support we have back home (in Texas)," Erica said. "We've been through a lot, and they've always been there for us. My mom came down to Corpus Christi to help me with the boys when my husband was deployed. Our family has always been supportive through everything."
"I'm just thankful for the opportunity to be with my family; I haven't been home the last couple of Thanksgivings," said Manny. "It's great to be home with my kids and my wife. I'm also thankful to be in a new town, hoping to meet some new people."
When asked if his military duty had especially made him thankful for something, Manny replied: "My wife. She has stuck by me through thick and thin, and she is the strength of our family."
Erica plans to make a small turkey for their first Thanksgiving in Modesto, though she said they also had been invited to other homes, by Manny's co-worker and their new landlord.
Army Sgt. Scott Stafford, 43, has spent many Thanksgivings away from his wife, Tammy, and his children Kaitlyn, 20, and Keary, 18. Deployed once to Bosnia, three times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan since 2002, Stafford this year will spend the holiday at his home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash.
"There is so much to be thankful for, but this year I am thankful just being home with my family," he said. As a member of the military, he added, "I no longer take for granted the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. For example, just being able to shop when and where we want and to choose our own religions."
This Thanksgiving, Stafford said, "I will be at home with family and friends eating my wife's awesome turkey and playing Wii games."
Stafford was born and raised in Modesto. His mom, Susan Stafford, said, "As the parent of a soldier, this Thanksgiving I am thankful for Scott's safe return from Afghanistan earlier this year. I am thankful not only for his physical well-being, but his spiritual, mental and emotional health as well."
Brenda Proetel of Turlock wrote to say that her daughter, Amanda Proetel, decided to join the Army just before Christmas last year when she was 18. She spent her 19th birthday in basic combat training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., unreachable by phone or e-mail.
"I have been a very low-income, single parent for many years, so being able to travel with my 15-year-old son to Fort Jackson to see her graduate was a blessing almost bigger than I could have dreamed," Brenda said. "While many people take for granted they can pick up their phone and call their child at any time, I have learned to be grateful for those times, few and far between, when I can hear my daughter's voice."
Amanda Proetel, currently training in Georgia, will be deployed shortly after New Year's, Brenda said. Brenda has three children: Jessica, Amanda and Christian Proetel, ages 21, 19 and 15, respectively. "As the holiday season approaches, I am tremendously aware of how thankful I am that all of my children have been such a huge blessing in my life," she said. "We will not all get to be together for Thanksgiving, but will be celebrating Christmas here in Turlock with my oldest daughter. Mostly, I am thankful to God for giving me the strength and courage to face this new challenge of being an Army strong mom."
Scott Holmes, 25, has served in the Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently is stationed at the Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. Because he's been there for a little more than a month, he won't be returning to Modesto for Thanksgiving. Instead, he said, he plans to travel to Amsterdam with a buddy.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity the Air Force provides to travel around the world and visit places I never could have dreamed of seeing otherwise," he said. His military service, he said, has made him more aware of his blessings.
"When you only get the opportunity to come back home maybe once a year, you realize how important family is, and you never take them for granted," he said. "It is very nice knowing that wherever I go, I always have a military family that I can rely on for anything."
His mom, Nancy Holmes, added, "I have to admit when Scott told us he was going to enlist in the Air Force, I didn't much like the idea. Looking back over the six years that he has been in the military has changed my perspective, and I couldn't be prouder of him. I have a greater appreciation for our military and the sacrifices they make every single day on our behalf. I'm thankful also for the families of those who serve and their sacrifices.
"We reluctantly sent off an immature boy to boot camp, and I've seen my son grow to be a young man who proudly serves his country and considers it an honor and privilege to do so. I am thankful every single day for God's hand of protection on Scott."
Ruby Barlow, mother of 24-year-old Air Force surgical assistant Patricia Garza of Turlock, said she has much for which to be thankful.
"I don't even know where to begin, but I am most thankful that my daughter returned from Afghanistan without a scratch," Barlow said. "She re-enlisted for another four years in the Air Force and I am very proud."
Kristina May, 29, is in a Navy Reserves unit in Monterey and previously served at Camp Patriot in Kuwait. The single mom of two children Falicity, 11, and Trenton, 9 lives in Oakdale and works as a waitress there as she pursues a career in criminal justice.
She said she will be spending Thanksgiving at her sister's home, and said her military service has "absolutely" made her more aware of her blessings.
"I'm especially thankful for my family and their health," she said.
Patrick Ketchum, 44, is an Army infantryman stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. He was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, returning from the latter in January.
"I am most thankful that I will be able to spend the holidays with my wife and family," he said.
He and his wife, Caroline, plan to share the day with friends in his unit.
Ketchum's mother, Jenny Kenoyer of Modesto, said, "I am thankful for my son coming home safely after two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Some families were not so lucky."
Sgt. Aaron Coomes, 23, is a third-generation Marine who has served in Afghanistan. His paternal grandfather served in the Marines in Vietnam, and his parents were both Marines. Coomes is serving at Camp Pendleton as a combat training instructor. He is married to Andrea and will be working on this Thanksgiving Day.
His mother, Margie Humphres of Ceres, said, "I am thankful for my family, my friends, and for the blessings, both big and small, that God has given me."
Brittany Kissee, a 25-year-old Navy surface warfare specialist, is spending the holiday in the Mediterranean with 600 other sailors and Marines aboard the USS Fort McHenry.
"I can't be more specific about our location," she said.
She is most thankful "for a job that pays me to not only serve our country, but also to be in Italy one day and the next be walking the streets of Romania."
Kissee said her service "makes you really think about the small things that we take for granted every day, like just being able to call home whenever you want or to be able to hop in my car and go to the store."
Her parents, Bee Publisher Eric Johnston and his wife Susan of Modesto, said: "We are thankful for relatively simple things. We are thankful for the occasional e-mail, phone call or video chat from wherever in the world Brittany is. We are thankful to have met some of her fellow sailors and get a strong sense of how tightly knit they are, and how they are watching out for one another.
"We are also thankful for a military that allows her to serve, to learn and to be fulfilled in her career."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.