FORT CARSON, Colo. (CBS4) – It was almost one year ago when one Fort Carson soldier deployed to Afghanistan for the first time. Now Spc. Juan Santiago has just returned home to his country, his wife and his daughter.

Santiago left Fort Carson a private first class and he returned a specialist. He’s a father, a husband, and a soldier who, like so many others, has given up a year of “firsts.”

“I’m going to miss her first steps. I’m going to miss her first words. I’m going to miss just about everything that a baby does for the first year,” Santiago said before he deployed last year.

A year ago Pvt. Santiago couldn’t think beyond leaving home and perhaps being killed.

“It’s not so much about dying, it’s about time away, how different things are going to be when you get back; what’s changed, what hasn’t changed,” he said.

Santiago is CBS4’s Gloria Neal’s nephew. She was there to greet him when he arrived home and asked him how it felt.

“It’s emotional. I don’t know. I’m just happy to be home — definitely happy to be home,” he replied.

Clearly visible are the physical changes Santiago underwent on his time away. He has a slimmed-down face and bulked up body.

Before he left, his daughter Hope was a daddy’s girl.

“I walk into the room it’s not a big deal. He walks into the room and she’s just like big eyes; always staring at him. She knows when he’s home,” Santiago’s wife Helen said before he deployed.

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Now Hope is a toddler who’s looking like, “Who is this man called Daddy?”

“She’s gotten big,” Santiago said.

“She’s like, ‘Who is this man?’ ” Helen said.

As for Helen’s worries — like most military wives — it’s the fear of not knowing the future.

“It’s just like the unknown; like you don’t know if it’s going to be the last time you hug him; or if it’s going to be the last time you go to sleep together,” Helen said before he deployed. “You don’t know if it’s the last time he sees Hope. You just don’t know.”

The family is back together again just in time for the holidays.

“I’m okay. I’m home now and that’s all that matters,” Santiago said.


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