FORT WAYNE – Ashlee Carter is holding her two daughters in her arms, taking the deepest breaths of her life.
Inhale … exhale … in … out … in … and out again.
The 24-year-old has been waiting for this day for … how long? Thirteen months.
Thirteen long, arduous and exhausting months.
During that time, she has paid the bills, taken care of the home, taken care of one kid who turned 2 and given birth to another who is now seven months old.
She has had plenty of help from her family, but she has had to go through all this without her husband.
“It’s been a mess,” she says.
But in the Memorial Coliseum’s Exposition Center, where two buses had just pulled inside amid a throng of people cheering and holding signs, that was all about to change.
More than 60 members of the Army Reserve 384th Military Police Battalion came home Wednesday after a yearlong mission in Afghanistan.
They stepped off the buses and melted into the arms of loved ones.
They were showered with hugs, with kisses, with slaps on their backs and with flowers and gifts.
Among those soldiers is Spc. Riley Carter, who makes a beeline for his wife and kids – one he has yet to see in person.
“Hi!” Ashlee says to her husband.
The last time they saw each other, she was six months pregnant. They chatted over video, but that was never the same. They even did so while she gave birth, but that only made the heartache and distance between them seem so much worse.
“This is Paisley,” she says, handing their youngest daughter to him for the first time.
Paisley spent the first meeting with her father feeling his cheek, grabbing at the side of his neck and then gripping his fingers.
Soon enough, she smiled.
“Oh my gosh, this is like, the best thing,” Ashlee said.
Elsewhere in the crowd, Spc. Kyle Woods is taking an earnest look into the face of his 14-month-old daughter, Paiton.
He missed her birth but got to spend about 3 1/2 months with her afterward.
Still, he has missed a lot, and now he’s trying to make the little girl laugh.
“It’s like looking into a mirror,” Woods said before kissing the girl on her face.
Then his lips gravitate toward those of his wife, Jessica, and he begins planting huge kisses on her like he hadn’t seen her for an eternity.
Or at least a year, anyway.
And how do you explain a year to a child?
How do you tell them that their father would be gone for that long?
How do you tell them that he’ll be home soon?
Both Ashlee Carter and Jessica Woods had to deal with that, how to get their kids to grasp those concepts.
“I think we told her ‘soon’ so often that she began not to believe us,” Ashlee said, explaining her husband’s absence to Lily.
Once, at a local Starbucks, Lily saw two men in military uniforms come inside. She immediately ran to the window looking for her father.
One of the men, whom the Carters did not know, calmed Lily by saying that he worked with her father and that he loved her very much.
“I wish I would’ve gotten his name or number to thank him,” Ashlee said.
Jessica Woods did not know whether her daughter understood that her father was a soldier, that her dad was the one chatting with them on video and on the phone so often.
One day, though, she took Paiton to the zoo with a family friend, who also happened to be in the military and who wore a uniform that day.
When he left, the little girl had a meltdown.
“I didn’t think she’d know, but she does,” Jessica said.
But Wednesday, all of that absence was soon forgotten, as fathers, daughters, mothers and siblings embraced one another.
And came together at last.