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Reunion of soldiers, families at Fort Drum 'the best Christmas present'

By Ross Levitt, CNN
Vanessa Schilling says 9-month-old Jace Ryder's dad had seen him only the first four days of his life.
Vanessa Schilling says 9-month-old Jace Ryder's dad had seen him only the first four days of his life.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nearly 300 soldiers are reunited with family, loved ones after serving one year in Afghanistan
  • Lt. Col. Paul Swiergosz says 24 soldiers from the unit were killed: "We never forget our fallen"
  • One kid's shirt read, "Welcome home Daddy. I took care of Mommy while you were gone"

(CNN) -- Christmas came a day late for the families of nearly 300 soldiers returning to Fort Drum in New York on Saturday from a one-year deployment in Afghanistan.

But it hardly seemed to matter.

Loud cheers filled Magrath Gym as the soldiers marched in just at just after 6 in the morning.

Many families waved signs and flags. One toddler sported a shirt that read, "Welcome home Daddy. I took care of Mommy while you were gone."

Nine-month-old Jace Ryder Schilling saw his dad for only his first four days of life before laying eyes on Sgt. James Schilling again on Saturday.

But it was Jace's mom that missed him the most. "I haven't slept all night. I'm excited," she gushed.

These families were the lucky ones. Public affairs officer, Lt. Col. Paul Swiergosz, said 24 soldiers from the unit died in combat. Even on this happy day, he said, "We never forget our fallen."

Video: A reunion in Fort Drum
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After telling the soldiers he was proud of their service, Col. David Haight, the 3rd Brigade's commander, said the word they really wanted to hear, "Dismissed."

At that point it was a mad scramble to find loved ones in a sea of other people's loved ones.

Among those searching for a family member was Maryann Pfaltgraff and her two children, Justin and Cathy.

As she approached her husband, Lt. Col. Damon Pfaltzgraff, the kids unclutched from her arms and made a mad dash to a dad they've barely seen for a year.

"Now he's home and he can take over his job as daddy," Maryann Pfaltgraff said.

Like many of the families, they had not celebrated Christmas yet. It wouldn't have been the same without their dad. "Santa waited. Santa hasn't come yet," Maryann Pfaltgraff said.

At least not the one who brings toys. She took a look at her husband with his arms tightly around the kids and said her gift had arrived, "This is the best Christmas present."