An explosion of love engulfed 150 well-wishers and 12 National Guard soldiers returning from duty in Iraq.
At Modesto Airport on Saturday afternoon, tears, laughter and smiles meant the same thing: A loved one had come home safe and sound.
The men of Concord-based California National Guard 1-143rd Field Artillery, about 800 strong, came home all across California to balloons, pictures, flag waving, bear hugs and tears of gratitude. Not one of their number had been killed during the 11-month deployment. Most of the soldiers had been away from home for 13 months.
The Modesto contingent began trickling into the terminal at 1:15 p.m. At every turn, another joyous drama unfolded.
One soldier's mother, Teresa Fournier, and his girlfriend, Patty Ramirez, talked about who would get the first kiss before Christopher Fournier, 21, of Los Banos appeared. Finally Teresa Fournier shrugged. "He has two arms. We'll each take one."
They shared the joy of his presence as they shared the terror of his absence. When asked which day was the worst while her son was gone, Teresa Fournier replied, "All of them."
She had blamed herself when her son was shaken up by a mortar round.
She explained that the day before Christopher Fournier's Humvee was hit, she had watched news and tapes from Iraq for the first and last time during her son's deployment.
For soldiers, there were good-byes, too. Fournier embraced two comrades with bear hugs before they went their separate ways.
Rhonda Tolleson and her five children waited impatiently for a glimpse of dad, Sgt. Carey Tolleson of Columbia. Two daughters climbed on luggage racks to get a better view. But other, bigger people had the same idea.
Tears filled Rhonda Tolleson's eyes. "It's so hard to raise five kids by yourself." Was that why she was crying? No, she admitted. "I'm just so happy."
Jorden, 7, got to daddy first and jumped in his arms. Then Shianne, 13, Lacey, 11, and Tory, 9, surrounded their father. Rhonda Tolleson, with their 2-year-old nearby, looked at the throng and urged her husband, "Let's get out of here."
Tolleson looked softly at his wife and took her alone in his arms. Thirteen months of separation melted away with one kiss.
No more tours in Iraq
Michael Winstead, 49, was the sergeant major of the battalion. His wife, Maria, brought two of their four sons from their Riverbank home. She said this was her husband's second deployment and her third. When her husband came home from Iraq the last time, her son, also named Michael, was just leaving.
As dad comes home this time, the younger Michael is preparing to deploy to Iraq for the second time.
Michael the elder planned to go to the ballpark at 5 p.m. Saturday to see his son Gabriel, 14, pitch. Gabriel wore his baseball uniform to the airport.
Maria Winstead said the best thing about her husband being home was she wouldn't yell at her sons so much. They nodded in agreement behind her.
Maria Winstead said she had a friendly word of caution for her husband. "If he leaves again, he won't have to worry about any Iraqis. I'll shoot him myself."
Winstead assured his family he is home to stay.
One of the largest groups came to cheer Vadim Zvarich of Castro Valley. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Zvarich said the show of love was overwhelming.
"I'm very happy to be home."
His father, with eyes watering, said, "I missed him. I am very proud."
David Zucker came home to his wife and children in Modesto and said family is all that matters.
A couple of co-workers from the post office came to greet Zucker. One was Jennifer Tyson, the mother of fallen Marine Michael D. Anderson Jr. It was doubly poignant for Tyson. Saturday was her son's birthday.
William Jensen may have had the most to look forward to. His preschool son wore camos like his daddy, and jumped into papa's arms.
Jensen, of Ceres, gave his son a hug and walked to his wife, who was standing behind a stroller. Then Jensen looked for the first time upon his youngest son, Mason, 2 months old.
Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2311.