SALISBURY -- Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Rantz says he has had just about all the drama he can stand -- good and bad.
He has endured tearful goodbyes and long separations from his wife, Cheryl. He has reveled in airport homecomings. Now, after spending all but five months of the past two years on active duty with the 115th Military Police Battalion, the Maryland National Guard veteran is anticipating all things familiar.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet that it's Christmas," Rantz says. "From the time I got home, we've just been overwhelmed with family. Of course, that's what we want."
Rantz, whose unit has served at the Pentagon, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Iraq, has waited a long time for holiday rituals like the big ham dinner last night at his brother's house in their Eastern Shore hometown of Pocomoke City. The buffet for about 30 people, for which Cheryl is responsible for the cherry and pumpkin pies, is always followed by candlelight services at Lynnhaven Baptist Church.
Today, Rantz plans to be right where he always is on Christmas morning -- sitting down with Cheryl's brother and sister-in-law, Roy and Patty Vance, in nearby Pittsville. Patty is famous for her holiday brunch, where the favorite item on the menu for three dozen or so family members is, of all things, French toast.
Rantz, who in civilian life is a corporal in the Wicomico County Sheriff's Department, arrived early Friday with other members of his unit at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
It was the last stop in a 36-hour trip from Baghdad, where they had been guarding high-ranking Iraqi prisoners at a detention center that Rantz describes as the most secure in Iraq.
Despite having lived a similar scene upon returning from earlier overseas assignments, Rantz remembers searching the faces among the crowd.
Cheryl says she spotted him immediately as he stepped through the door, but at first, Rantz couldn't catch sight of his wife of eight years.
"It was the most emotional thing I've ever been through," says Rantz, 34. "I've had my share of life experiences -- both my parents died of cancer. But this was really something."
The first stop for the couple was Beaver Run Elementary, just a few blocks from their neighborhood east of Salisbury.
Five-year-old Emily knew, of course, that her mother had gone to pick him up, but the child jumped from her seat and rushed to greet Rantz, who was still wearing desert camouflage.
"I came running and I was crying," says Emily, who has rarely left her father's side in recent days, even accompanying him to the neighborhood barber for a $4 trim that cleaned up his military buzz cut.
Rantz says he is looking forward to the mundane chores of everyday life when the holiday rituals are over.
One of his favorite places is his backyard woodshop where, most years, he's fashioned gifts for family members.
He's also persnickety about their lawn, Cheryl says, an avocation he'll get back to come spring.
One reassuring sign of normality is that Emily, who began sleeping with Cheryl a couple of days after her father shipped out for Iraq, has moved back to her own room in the family's rancher.
For her part, Cheryl, 45, has kept a rein on her emotions, attributing her stiff upper lip to her experience as a criminal investigator.
A lieutenant, she is the highest-ranking woman in the Salisbury Police Department, which she joined in 1988.
Since the 115th shipped out last spring, she has lived, she says, pretty much as a single parent, trying to maintain the household rhythm for herself, Emily and Cheryl's daughters from an earlier marriage, Heather Spadin, 19, and Melanie, 18.
"It was tough with Jeff missing the big things, like both of their graduations, both their proms," says Cheryl. "I spent our wedding anniversary alone two years in a row. I even went to his family reunion without him."
As a sheriff's deputy, Rantz has kept the same salary through active duty, with Wicomico County making up the difference between his military and civilian pay. In a month or so, he expects to go back to his position as supervisor of the department's bicycle squad, which patrols high-crime areas.
With more than 12 years in the Guard, Rantz says the possibility of earning military retirement pay is enticing. But this time, he says, he won't re-enlist. Called up after Sept. 11, 2001, his unit was standing guard at the Pentagon less than 24 hours after the terrorist attacks. Later, members guarded al-Qaida prisoners at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
"Any family is only going to be as strong through this as it was when you left, and I have a strong wife," says Rantz. "I really believe that this mission needed doing, but this is entirely too much to ask of me and my family. I look at my little girl and it's just too much."