A Christmas to remember for one Army sergeant
The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
While his infant daughter might not remember her first Christmas, Army Sgt. John Nolan will never forget it.
Nolan returned home Dec. 10 from his year-long deployment to Afghanistan to the welcoming arms of his wife, Cara, and 8-month-old daughter, Riley Grace. The family will celebrate Riley's first Christmas this year in Wilkes-Barre.
"I'm extremely grateful I made it home in time to be here for it. I had missed a lot while I was deployed," Nolan said. "I didn't want to miss any more major milestones, if I didn't have to. I know she's not going to remember Christmas, but I'll definitely remember that I was here for her first Christmas."
So what do the Nolans have planned for their first Christmas with their daughter?
"Just lots of time with family," Nolan said. "It's great being back with the baby. It's more than I could've asked for, coming home to her."
The sergeant spent two quick weeks with his daughter after she was born April 3, before returning to Afghanistan.
"She fit in the palm of my hand; now, she's talking to herself and moving around, so it's quite a change," said Nolan, who is stationed at Fort Eustis, Va.
The family will spend the holidays with local relatives, including Nolan's parents, Jack and Sherry Nolan of Wilkes-Barre. Nolan is also the grandson of Patricia and the late John Nolan of Mahanoy City. After the holidays, the family will return to Virginia to move into their new home.
Nolan expressed gratitude for his immediate and extended family, who've been very supportive as he transitions back to life in the United States.
"It was a little overwhelming, to be honest," he said. "I (had) been away for the year. It was a very long deployment. We did a lot of work, and there were a few rough times, so it was an adjustment to being back in the 'normal, civilian life,' as people would put it."
Nolan received his promotion to sergeant and received the Bronze Star as a "battlefield promotion" while in Afghanistan. While there, he worked with Honza, a military working dog that specializes in searches.
The two combed the landscape for improvised explosive devices and cleared roadways to ensure traveling Americans wouldn't hit roadside bombs, Nolan said.
At Fort Eustis, Nolan works with Honza, a yellow labrador, in the base's kennels. They'll team up on security detail, and may be called out to assist with bomb sweeps or support secret service missions in that region. They started training together in January 2011.
"We're just now coming up on two years together," he said.
Nolan said he owned pet dogs throughout his life, so when he decided to enlist he knew he wanted to work with them. He enlisted as a military police officer in January 2007, hoping to move into the canine program, and about four years later he got the opportunity to train as a handler.
Before partnering with Honza, Nolan spent 15 months in Iraq during his first deployment, from November 2007 to February 2009.
He started dating Cara prior to that trip, and the couple married in 2010.
"She's much better at (getting through the deployments) than I am. It's hard on me being away. I know it's hard on her when I'm gone, too," he said.
At the base, Nolan and Honza will team up again on security detail.
"We're always working," he said.