CERES -- John Wilson knew his wife, Karen, had planned something when she urged him to wear his freshly ironed uniform on the last leg of his return from Afghanistan on Saturday.
As they drove up to their Ceres home, they were greeted by family and friends in front of a home decked with flags, yellow ribbons and a "Welcome Home" on the garage door. The returning soldier got plenty of hugs from his grown daughters, Sandra and Hope, younger daughter Jasymnne and his mother, Geraldine Wilson from Southern California.
Also attending the surprise party were two Ceres police officers and members of veterans organizations.
"It's overwhelming to see all the faces and all the people who came out," said Wilson, 50, a senior master sergeant with the California Air National Guard 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Field in the Bay Area. "It makes coming home a lot sweeter."
Six years ago, Wilson was in Kuwait helping to launch helicopters to patrol the "no fly zone" when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. The mission was canceled and his unit watched in disbelief as the events unfolded on television. They were put on a high state of alert.
"My initial thought was I'm not going home on time," said Wilson, who stayed an extra month or two in Kuwait.
The war on terrorism focused the next six years of his service on the Middle East. He was sent to Iraq soon after the invasion force toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Other deployments took him to Turkey, and when he re-enlisted two years ago, it led to a tour in Afghanistan.
He just completed 4½ months at an air base in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, where the 129th engaged in operations to retrieve downed pilots and injured soldiers. Wilson supervised maintenance crews that kept the Pavehawk helicopters flying in dust storms and temperatures up to 130 degrees.
The helicopters went on daily missions, as there was fighting all around the area, Wilson said. Taliban fighters, who are trying to take back pieces of the country, pelted the air base with mortars and rockets.
The maintenance workers were constantly blowing sand out of engines, radios and weapons, he said. The U.S. forces served alongside personnel from Canada, Jordan, Britain and other European countries, and the base became a NATO installation Aug. 1.
Wilson expressed pride that the 36 people under his supervision returned home unscathed and none of their aircraft went down because of mechanical problems. "The mission is a good one," he said. "We are trying to bring stability to the area. We gave a lot of support to the locals by taking food and clothing to them."
Wilson drew on support from his daily calls to Karen, his wife of nearly 28 years. The couple, who met in high school in Southern California, lived in the Bay Area before moving here in 2004 to buy a home.
Karen Wilson sent her husband food packages with ready-to-eat meals, bread, canned tuna, pudding, his favorite snacks and Otter Pops.
She kept busy remodeling their Ceres home, installing hardwood floors and carpeting in some rooms, repainting the interiors and redoing the bathrooms.
John Wilson said he made no attempt to manage the work over the phone.
"I let her do it on her own," he said. "If I did that it would just muddy the waters."
Because of his 28 years with the Air National Guard, it's more than likely this was his last deployment to the Middle East, though there is no guarantee. Wilson has a month off before returning to duty at Moffett Field. The rescue wing's peacetime mission is responding to natural disasters and ocean rescues.
Wilson plans to complete two more years in the guard, then get a civil service job and focus on their notary business, he said.
Karen Wilson said the recent deployment was more difficult than previous ones. The family is fairly new to the area and she felt isolated, she said. She is involved at Jasymnne's elementary school as chairwoman of the parent-teacher club.
"We needed to make this homecoming special," she said. "It wasn't nice over there and he needed to have peace."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.