FRESNO, Calif. — Army Sgt. Thomas Narciso is home with his family in Kingsburg for Thanksgiving — for which he is thankful — but much of his heart remains in Afghanistan.
That's where his wife, Sgt. Monique Narciso, is spending her holiday, the first time in their five-year marriage they have been apart for Thanksgiving.
"I feel bad that I can't be with her," he said.
The Fresno couple, both 25, met when they joined the National Guard. They were deployed to Afghanistan in May and served together there until he dislocated his left kneecap during a work detail in September.
Though he didn't want to leave, the injury forced him to return to the states. He had been rehabilitating at Fort Bliss in Texas.
"I'm happy to be back, but a little bit sad and concerned that she's over there," he said.
Monique Narciso, an administration noncommissioned officer, said in an email that she also is disappointed that they won't be together for Thanksgiving.
"The holidays just bring up so much sadness, but I am happy he gets to be home with his family and grateful that he is OK," she said. "I just wish I was there with him."
On Wednesday evening, a large gathering of Thomas Narciso's family and military veterans gave him a warm welcome when his flight arrived at Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
As the 25 or so veterans, many holding U.S. flags, lined each side of the exit into the airport lobby, Narciso made his way to his mother and father, Hortencia and Cirilo Narciso, giving each a long, emotional hug.
"I wasn't really expecting this. It was a surprise," said Narciso, who was overwhelmed by the reception. He added: "It's good to be home."
His teary-eyed mother said the joy of the reunion with her son was hard to put into words.
"It's a happiness that I can't explain," she said.
Among those greeting the soldier was Elizabeth Mendoza, Monique Narciso's mother, who was glad to see her son-in-law but sorry that her daughter couldn't join him.
"It's not easy," she said. "I just have to have faith and hope that she's OK. In our hearts, we're with her."
Stan Shorey, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, said recognizing service members is important to veterans.
"It's our duty, our honor, but mostly it's our privilege to be here to welcome him," he said.
The Narcisos are part of the 1072nd Transportation Company of the California Army National Guard in Fresno.
In 2007 and 2008, they served together during a deployment to Iraq.
His injury during their second deployment gave the couple a different perspective of military life. He said he now understands how families feel when they are separated.
"I feel for them," he said. "I know how it is for them when they're deployed."
Monique Narciso immediately thought the worst when she heard her husband had been injured but was relieved when she learned his injury wasn't more serious.
"This experience has made me realize that anything can change within a blink of an eye," she said. "Things can happen so fast that your heart barely has time to catch up and process what is actually happening."
Thomas Narciso, who was on crutches for about two months after his injury, is able to walk now but still needs more rehabilitation. He will spend about four days with his family before traveling to Sacramento to find out where he will continue his rehab. Most likely that will be in Fresno, he said.
He graduated from Kingsburg High School in 2005, the same year she graduated from Roosevelt High School in Fresno.
In the National Guard, he has served as a mechanic and a driver while her duties include human-resources-related paperwork and helping soldiers with résumés.
Monique Narciso said she will share a Thanksgiving meal with her fellow soldiers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan — a dinner for which they will have to wait an hour or two in freezing temperatures. Without her husband, she will eat her meal with a heavy heart.
"I have really supportive comrades here who are also going through the same emotions," she said.
The Narcisos also will spend Christmas apart since her deployment ends early next year. She said she is counting down the days.
"I love him with all of my heart," she said of her husband, "and can't wait until the day I am back safely in his arms."