HUDSON — When Christian and Nicholas Villa sit down for Thanksgiving dinner today, their biggest blessing will be there at the table with them — their dad.
Cuddles and snuggles, and some good-natured tussles, have filled the home of Steve Villa all week as the sergeant with the Army National Guard has been home from Iraq for a short visit with his sons, Nicholas, 5, and Christian, 6.
Villa is on leave for two weeks, including the Thanksgiving holiday, and for that he's quite grateful. He's a full-time National Guardsman with the 1-244 Helicopter Battalion based at the armory south of Brooksville.
Villa, a serviceman since 1996 who has served in Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as Iraq, last saw his sons on a four-day leave in June. His most recent of four deployments sent him to the Mideast in April.
"I wanted to come home for the (Christmas) holiday, but I wanted to be home for my son's birthday," the 36-year-old divorced father said. Christian will celebrate 7 years on Monday.
At the home of Villa's parents, Linda and Jesus Villa of Port Richey, an extended family will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner.
"It's a combination, like a family reunion, because I'm home, with aunts, uncles and close family friends and the boys," Steve Villa said.
What's on the table, he said, won't be nearly as important as who's around it. What counts to him is "just having a meal, sitting down there with my boys, regardless of what's being served."
During his leave through Dec. 5, Villa's aim is "enjoying time with the boys — spend as much quality time as I can with them. Me and the boys are real, real close. I think of them as my best friends."
When Villa is called to duty, his parents and his former wife, Linda Villa, care for the boys. Villa recently re-enlisted and signed up for his fifth tour in the Mideast.
As much as family is dear to him, he is driven to serve his country.
"I believe in what we're doing," Villa said. "I actually enjoy the job."
He serves as head logistics noncommissioned officer, officer in charge, crew chief and head mechanic when necessary.
His unit is part of a Florida-Louisiana task force stationed 30 miles north of Baghdad. There's a friendly rivalry between the states, augmented for the Floridians by donations of University of Florida flags, banners, T-shirts and pennants by students at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics in Spring Hill who wanted to boost the Gators. The university also contributed.
And items from Treats for Troops, a group organized by George and Barbara Newlin of Spring Hill, have also come the unit's way.
Cynthia Downey, family readiness coordinator at the Hernando National Guard, has been "awesome" in facilitating even more gifts from home, Villa said.
"This is like, wow. They really do care," he said.
Villa has one simple Thanksgiving wish: "That everyone I left (in Iraq) will complete the mission and come back home safely."
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.