SANTA ROSA, Calif. — It was Sunday afternoon and Tiffini Horton, 48, was nervous. Her husband never got a genuine homecoming celebration. Well, today he was going to.
“He doesn't like large crowds, that's why we're keeping it pretty small today,” she said, referring to her husband, James, who was due any moment at their home on a quiet side street in Rincon Valley.
Over the little front porch a banner hung. It said: “Thank you for your service Sgt. James Horton. We honor you.”
The sergeant first class, a 27-year military man seriously wounded in the Iraq War, had retired Feb. 17. That was when the Army, after a five-year bureaucratic battle, released him from active duty by recognizing the wartime injuries he suffered in 2008 in Fallujah, at the start of his fourth combat tour.
He was still recovering from traumatic brain injury, she said. Back and knee injuries still pain him. He has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suffers from nightmares, rages and sleeplessness.
“I'm nervous about his reaction,” said his wife, who met him first when they were Santa Rosa High School students. “He's not going to be mad or anything, but, yikes, he's going to be overwhelmed.”
A big American flag was mounted on the garage wall. Smaller flags were stuck in the lawn. Red, and white star-spangled crepe paper balls hung from the porch rafters, too.
Her husband was in Lake County with her son, Horton said, on a prearranged trip to look at property, a ruse designed to keep him away until the party preparations were complete. About 20 people, nieces, nephews, his sister, friends, had gathered outside in the warm sun to wait for his arrival.
She went inside and shooed a little white dog to the back of the house.
A car was heard.
”Is that them?” she said.
“Better not be,” said Ann Musso of Burlingame, a close friend who'd helped plan the surprise.
It wasn't. And so the two women, joined by another friend, Marla O'Connor, collected themselves next to a tray of Dixie cups of tequila Jello shots.
“I need one of those,” Horton said.
“Ready, cheers,” said O'Connor.
“Honey, that is strong,” said Horton, who was wearing red high heels, a blue dress and her grandmother's white pearls. “That'll settle my nerves.”
Food crowded the kitchen Chicken legs. Pulled pork. Crackers and cheese. She'd told her husband, whom she married in 2012, that she was preparing it all to help out a nephew.
“I had lots of people lying for me profusely,” Horton said. She held a flag on a dowel and, nerves on edge, twirled it, twirled it.
A few minutes later, when someone yelled, “He's here, they're here,” Horton was somehow in the den. She raced outside to join the people on the sidewalk waving flags.
James Horton, 48, a big man in an Oakland Raiders sweatshirt, climbed slowly down from his son's truck.
He took in the scene, looking quizzical, then threw up his arms.
“You guys are bad,” he said. Then he hugged his wife, who kissed him. He wiped his eyes.
“Welcome, my brother,” said Dennis Van Meter of Nice, a friend and fellow Army veteran.
“Speech, speech,” some people said, after Horton had hugged everybody. He stood in the middle of the lawn looking for words.
“It's just been a long, long road, you know,” he said. “But there's a lot of veterans out there who are a lot worse off than me.”
He added: “I'm ready to go back to school and get another chapter in my life started.”
Soon, everybody went inside and someone put on a country song about the Marines, with whom Horton started his military career in 1982.
The music was very loud — “...Semper fi, do or die, so gung ho to go and pay the price...” Silently, standing at one end of the den, by a table holding his Army commendations and scrapbooks, Tiffini Horton beckoned her husband.
He wagged his finger at her as he came forward and when he got to her, they embraced for so long that people watching settled into the soft moment.
She read a list of some of his career highlights, among them, talking a suicidal woman back from the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge, where he'd been stationed as a National Guardsman after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Her voice cracked. Men and women in the room were crying. He nodded at each memory, looking serious.
She and Musso and Van Meter read letters and proclamations to him from Congressmen Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, Gov. Jerry Brown, Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley and Army Major General Douglas Stone, who is also an Iraq veteran.
Musso told Horton that Thompson's office was going to get him his Purple Heart, which he has not yet received. He couldn't speak. Emotion played across his face. He wiped his eyes yet another time.
Later, Tiffini Horton stood on the from porch and talked with her husband, who had gone outside to breathe more easily.
She smoked a cigarette. She touched his arm.