Shari Humphrey called it "the best Christmas present ever."
The Hermiston resident and military wife hadn't heard from her husband for several days. Then, on Christmas Eve, she found out why - Sgt. First Class Alan Humphrey III was making his way home from Iraq.
"I was like totally surprised,"?Shari said. "And then I?started crying. It was good crying."
As it happened, Shari was just about the last one to find out. She said most of her family had known for some time Alan would return before Christmas and wanted to surprise her. Wednesday night he flew into Portland on a 15-day leave from his deployment, she said.
Much of Shari's family came over Thursday morning. While she was getting ready, Alan walked through the door.
"He just said, 'Merry Christmas,' and then I?just started crying,"?Shari said.
Alan was deployed to serve in Iraq earlier this year with the Army National Guard. It marked his second service trip there and third deployment overall. But this time, Baghdad didn't seem as far away as it once did.
Shari was connected with her husband, often a few times per week. The two used any number of digital options:?video chat, e-mail and Facebook among them.
During Alan's first deployment to Iraq five years ago, communication from there was spotty. At best.
"I?might get a phone call every two weeks,"?Shari said. "I never left my cell phone because I?was waiting for him to call."
There's an 11-hour time difference between Baghdad and Hermiston. But the Humphreys hurdled that gap as online communication got easier in both locations. The two most often used Skype, a Web site that allows for instant video calls across the globe. Shari typically got online in the morning hours, when Alan was wrapping up his day in Iraq.
Alan connected with his family on Thanksgiving, but it didn't feel quite the same, Shari said. Just last week, she wondered if he'd be able to reach them on Christmas Day.
Alan serves as the man in charge of food at the Joint Visitor Bureau in Baghdad, housed in one of the city's former presidential palaces. He manages a team of cooks that prepares meals for visiting dignitaries, officials or entertainers. That list so far has included Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently, plus singer Kid Rock, Shari said.
Shari often hears about those high-profile visits through the news back home. That's when she knows her husband will be even busier than usual. And Alan takes his duties very seriously.
"Like a fellow soldier said, 'It takes forever to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it,'"?Alan wrote in an e-mail. "You can be the best at what you do but one mess up will destroy it."
Back in Hermiston, Alan's presence was still felt around the Humphrey home during his absence. American flags adorn the inside and outside of the house. Military colors and honors are displayed on the walls. And looming across from the Christmas tree on a recent afternoon was a "flat daddy" - a poster-sized military portrait of Alan. Both of the family's children, 12-year-old Alan IV and 9-year-old Amanda, have one.
During a family breakfast at Denny's last fall, Alan came along - in the form of the "flat daddy."?Shari said the poster leaned against the back of a chair, facing the table with everyone else. The stoic face watched as a table setting was placed in front of it.
Shari still laughs about the outing.
"He's a very cheap date,"?she said. "He was fasting that day."
Shari said her most difficult times as a military wife come and go while Alan is away. She's mostly stayed busy with the two children, and her class load at Blue Mountain Community College.
Alan isn't in direct combat in Iraq, and he said conditions are much better there than they were in 2004-05. Still, reports of bombings or suicide attacks make Shari uneasy back home.
Shari also is fortunate to have plenty of support through other family, she said, including her sister, her parents and Alan's parents, all of whom live in the region. But something as simple as a song on the radio could bring tears to her eyes, Shari said. A recent school concert that included a military tribute also touched a nerve.
Alan's one-year deployment is scheduled to end next spring. But he, along with his family, will undoubtedly enjoy the brief time at home.
"I had a very, very good Christmas present,"?Shari said. "I'm just very excited."