It's only Kyleigh Cheyenne Stich's first Christmas, but whatever gifts the years to come place under her tree, it's unlikely any will come close to 2011.
Eleven-month-old Kyleigh, of Levittown, got the best present a little girl could hope for: Her dad.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Stich Jr. was one of 15 National Guard airmen flown home Tuesday in time for the holidays. Members of the 108th Security Forces Squadron stationed in Iraq since July, the airmen were reunited with their families at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in two separate arrivals.
"I missed you so much," Stich, 25, told his red, white, and blue-adorned daughter after giving her and wife Rachel, 24, big kisses. Also on hand - and beaming - were Stich's parents, Jeffrey Sr., 54, and Connie, 57; sister Danielle Pellegrini, 27; and niece Gianna, age 6 months.
"We're very excited. It's the best Christmas present ever," Stich's mother said shortly before a blue bus carrying the airmen from Baltimore pulled up.
Also waiting for Stich in the parking lot was his white pickup decorated with a "Welcome Home, Daddy" sign, adorned with the last photograph taken of him and his daughter together before he was deployed.
His parents held another sign: "We love you!"
For Stich's family, like the others, it was a long six months.
"We Skyped twice a day," said Rachel, who will turn 25 on Christmas. "It was nice, but when he didn't call one day, it was nerve-racking."
When Stich left, his daughter, who has his blue eyes, wasn't walking yet. He heard her say "Da-Da" over the Internet.
The airmen who returned Tuesday were the last of the Air Force military police to leave Iraq, according to military spokespeople. Eight of their comrades came home earlier in the month.
Tuesday's first round of 12 returnees were supposed to arrive around 11:30 a.m., with the rest expected late last night, but traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike caused the early crew to run late.
Brian Cupples, 57, of East Windsor, N.J., said he went to work at a Home Depot Tuesday morning to say he was leaving early to meet his son, Technical Sgt. Scott Cupples, 28, of Bordentown, an accountant for Burlington Coat Factory. His middle son, Clinton, 27, career Army, recently returned home from South Korea, he said.
Whenever he talked to his son in Iraq, the young man was upbeat, the elder Cupples said.
"They really can't talk much," he said. "Whenever they come home, it's 'Pop, now I can tell you.' When they're over there, I'm always worried," Brian Cupples said.
The father said he was glad the war was finally over.
"It seems as long as we're over there, it keeps them from coming over here," he said.
Some of the returning airmen, hailing from New Jersey and Bucks County, spoke with pride of their service to their country and to the future for Iraqis.
"To be able to go over there and know I could do something to help another country" was worth the effort, said Stich, who hopes to become a civilian police officer.
"I get to be a part of history," he said.
And this Christmas, he gets to be home.
With Kyleigh in his arms and his wife at his side, Stich said, "This is the best Christmas gift I could get."