The bright red 1967 Ford Mustang that pulled up to the Eckert family home in Martinez on Tuesday wasn't Santa's sleigh, but Jeanine Eckert said it brought her the greatest Christmas present ever - her son, home from war.
Behind the wheel of his classic muscle car, Spc. Chris Eckert drove two victory laps around Highlands Circle as more than 50 relatives, friends and neighbors waved flags and cheered. The 25-year-old Augusta Christian Schools graduate had been stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, with the Fort Hood, Texas-based 4th Infantry Division.
He returned to American soil about two weeks ago and spent several days debriefing before taking leave for Christmas.
"Mom gets the first hug," Mrs. Eckert said, embracing her son for the first time since his midtour leave several months ago.
"I told everybody, 'Nobody get me anything (for Christmas). This is it,'" she said of her son's return. "I do not want a thing."
Tuesday marked the end to a challenging year for the Eckerts that started with Chris' deployment to Iraq last December. Chris missed birthdays, holidays and was absent when his grandfather passed away earlier this year.
Instead of spending Christmas 2005 at home, helping to decorate the house and yard, Chris was thousands of miles away in Baghdad.
"They had the Christmas music playing and all that, but it was not the same as being home, seeing your friends and (celebrating like) you normally do," Chris said. "It feels great being back on familiar ground. It's been a long year, but this definitely makes it a lot nicer to be back."
Chris' father, also named Chris, said his son's spirit was missed in the home for Christmas 2005, when the house went undecorated. This year, he said, the spirit returned as Christmas lights again adorned the house and yard.
He said Chris' return offered everyone a chance at renewal.
"It hurt inside because there was an emptiness" last Christmas, the father said. "That's why this renewal was so important and why the house looks different this year."
Mrs. Eckert said her entire neighborhood supported her family during her son's tour in Iraq. As family and friends decorated the house for her son's return, she said she came to a realization just how fortunate they were.
"I'm a blessed woman," she said. "My son (came) home, but many, many others are not, who were killed."
Chris said he plans to relax during his two-week leave before attending the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans to see his beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the Tigers of Louisiana State University.
After that, he said he will return to Fort Hood to train for another tour in Iraq if his unit is called.
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