Lt. Col. Brian Scully was alone in his room at the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, feeling "really sad" about spending his first Christmas away from his wife and seven children.
Moments later, Scully peered halfway around the world into his South Jersey living room as his kids - ages 1 to 16 - opened their Christmas gifts.
"Yay!" they howled when their father appeared on the family's laptop via an Internet video connection. "Hi, Daddy!"
Most of their gifts had been opened earlier in the morning, but each child kept one last wrapped present from dad. Clad in fatigues, Scully leaned into his computer's video camera and watched as they opened the boxes.
"Oh, my God, it's a dog tag!" said Sarah, 14.
"It has Daddy's picture on it!" added Grace, 12. "Thank you, Dad, so much."
Each read: "With Love, From Dad, US Army, Iraq '08-'09."
Scully is the chief of staff for the Joint Area Support Group, the unit that handles security in Baghdad's International Zone, popularly known as the Green Zone. He assists the top commander of the New Jersey National Guard, which has 3,000 members of its Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Iraq - its largest deployment since World War II.
The soldiers, who left in September for nearly a year's duty, are also stationed at two other bases to protect convoys and guard imprisoned insurgents.
"Technology has certainly given me advantages my predecessors didn't have," Scully said over the video connection to his home in Evesham, Burlington County. "There's times of great sadness, like earlier today I was really sad and I was trying to identify why. I don't know if it's because of the separation, or if when we're together, I take it for granted."
So Scully tries to enjoy every second of his family video chats. But technology doesn't always cooperate.
For three weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, Scully's Internet connection from his quarters in the International Zone was down. There were no virtual visits with his wife and "best friend," Vicki, or with his kids.
Then came a little Christmas miracle. On Wednesday, the Internet was working again, and Scully made a surprise appearance on the big video screen at the family's church, Solid Rock Baptist in Berlin Borough, to open the Christmas Eve service.
Christmas morning, he was back online to watch his kids open presents.
It wasn't complete consolation for missing the baby's first words, or the oldest's driving lessons.
But, he said, "When they opened presents, it was a blessing to be there."
He noticed that Paul, 16, looked more "like a man" than the last time they spoke.
Paul says his emotions stay in check when he speaks to his father on the phone, "but if I see him on the video phone, I break up."
The youngest, Nathan, 1, taps on the laptop and says "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy" when the computer isn't connected.
"Being here is part of my job; being here is part of my duty," Scully said. "But I sure do wish I was there."
The Scullys are observant Christians who stress that the point of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus. So instead of talking about Santa Claus, the kids sing happy birthday to Jesus.
The family has several such own holiday traditions, most of which have remained intact without the "leader of our family," as Vicki describes her husband.
The kids got boxes of their favorite sugary cereal under the Christmas tree. They were served the annual Christmas breakfast of French toast, bacon and orange juice.
But unlike previous years, the house was not decked out in Christmas lights. That's Dad's job.
"It's just a big hole," Vicki said. "He's in everything we do. He's a dad and a husband who's not just here when he's here. He's here."
Without him around, the kids have picked up the slack. Paul was shopping alone at Walmart at 3 a.m. on Black Friday, making sure that Mary, 5, got her battery-operated Barbie Jeep. And on Christmas Eve, he stayed up assembling a pair of full-size soccer goals for the back yard, a gift for his younger brothers.
The family has also gotten help from their church, where four of the children attend school. Fellow parishioners help out with carpooling and cooking, and there are 50 people "I could call in the church - today, even - if I had problem," Vicki said.
When Scully comes home for a two-week leave in March, the family will give him his Christmas presents.
At the end of the conversation over the video-call service Skype, the kids held up their pinky fingers, index fingers and thumbs. This means "I love you" in sign language, and it's a family signal that could never be communicated via a telephone. Both parents are sign-language interpreters.
The lieutenant colonel returned the sign, then the screen went black. It was 8 p.m. Baghdad time, and the soldier's Christmas Day was over. For the kids, though, it had just begun.
"I can't imagine if we couldn't talk to him," Sarah said. "I feel worse for him. When he's done with his day, he just sits there and thinks of stuff, while we we have everybody here."