Emily stretched out on the floor of the living room with her markers and a few sheets of paper. The 7-year-old's curly red hair dangled off her shoulders. In large block letters she wrote: "I love Jory." She replaced the period with a heart. Her little sister, Katlynn, liked that idea. The 5-year-old sat on her knees with some other markers and paper and wrote "I love," then stopped. On her first try, the J looked like a D. Katlynn paused, looked at her sister's sheet, then wrote the name again.
U.S. Army Sgt. Jory Eichholtz, their father, sat on the sofa behind them and watched. He got home Saturday from his deployment in Afghanistan. Jory had not seen his girls in seven months, but he made it home for Thanksgiving.
A few minutes earlier, Jory had sat at the dinner table. His wife, Jennifer, and mother-in-law, Diane Boise, prepared dinner in the kitchen a few feet away. Emily sat on his right leg. Katlynn, who he nicknamed "Pickle," sat on his left. They used his broad shoulders for pillows. Their black lab, Bubba, played in a nearby bedroom with the family's cat, Lilly.
Jennifer brought her husband a bite of the 20-pound turkey she had been roasting since about 7 Thursday morning. He ate it and smiled.
The sergeant and his daughters stared into the kitchen.
"Daddy likes the dark meat," he whispered to Emily.
"Me too," she said, grinning.
Emily and Katlynn know their dad works for something called the Army. They know he's gone a lot. They know, at least to them, he's a hero.
But there are many things they don't know.
They don't know how many times he has been shot at during the two tours he has spent in the Middle East, one for 15 months in Iraq and the current one in Afghanistan for what will be a year. They don't know that he wears the black aluminum bracelet on his right wrist for a friend killed by a bomb this past September. They don't know that three weeks ago his truck drove over an improvised explosive device hidden inside a culvert on a rural stretch of road in southern Afghanistan. For some reason, it exploded about 150 meters behind him and didn't hurt anyone.
On the 14th, Jory, who works as an intelligence analyst, left his mud hut, dirt floor and plywood bedroom door at his base of Shoja. He had one goal: make it back for Emily's 7th birthday on the 20th. A helicopter flew him to Kandahar, then an Air Force plane flew him to Kuwait.
En route, Jory was told he wouldn't make it home until the 21st. He would miss his daughter's birthday.
"Not nervous," he said of his mood after that news. "I was p-----."
Then, something changed. He learned that he could make it back on the 19th, just in time.
He flew from Kuwait to Ireland, briefly, and then onto Atlanta and finally Tampa, where Jennifer picked him up from the airport.
"It was awesome," she said of when she first saw him. "I broke down in tears."
Emily and Katlynn had no idea their dad was back. Jennifer, the girls and some family friends met at Besta One Italian Grille in Spring Hill that night. She told her daughters they were having an early birthday celebration for Emily.
Then, in full uniform, Jory walked up behind his girls and leaned down. They beamed, they cried and they clung to him like sand spurs for the rest of the night.
Emily's favorite birthday present?
"My daddy," she said. Aside from her birthday and Thanksgiving, this is a big time of year for the Eichholtz family. The couple's eight-year wedding anniversary was Nov. 1, and Jory turns 30 on Dec. 1.
They won't do anything extravagant while he's home, though. Well, other than the pinup girl he had tattooed on his forearm. She's wearing a helmet, holding an American flag and sporting an Army-green bikini. Around 3 this morning, he planned to wake up with 29-year-old Jennifer for the Black Friday sales. As Jory thought of it, he looked down at the floor and shook his head.
"I get to stay with the purse," he said. "That's pretty standard husband duty."
He jokes but really doesn't mind. Jory, who has served in the Army for 11 years, appreciates the little things about being with his family for the holidays in the three-bedroom house they rent in Spring Hill.
He enjoys a good football game and a cold beer. On Thursday, he sipped on a bottle of Blue Moon wrapped in a Houston Texans koozie.
He likes turkey legs, but acknowledges that his favorite dish is the candied yams smothered in brown sugar, butter, pecans and a blanket of marshmallows. Really, though, he would take almost anything other than chicken, which he eats in some form at least four times a week in Afghanistan.
As his daughters finished their letters to him, Jennifer and Diane set the last few plates of potatoes and stuffing on an already crowded dinner table.
The family sat down, held hands and bowed their heads. Diane said the prayer.
"Keep our father and son-in-law safe," she said, "wherever he is."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]