ATWATER — As he carefully hung each red and gold ornament on the Christmas tree, Marine Cpl. Robert Anderson, 22, took a moment to reflect on his family.
Reaching over to help his 4-year-old son Carter scatter the ornaments around the tree, Anderson smiled at his wife who sat by his side.
As the wind howled outside their home in Atwater, Anderson enjoyed a warm afternoon with his family -- and a tradition he missed out on last year at this time.
"It was hard, but my wife and I knew it was for the better," Anderson said, remembering missing last Thanksgiving and Christmas. "Being away from my family and son was the hardest part."
Last year, Anderson was serving his second tour in Afghanistan, an experience that he said taught him to "be his own man" and honed his leadership skills.
For Anderson's family, the last holiday season felt incomplete without him.
"It's hard because it feels like a part of you is missing," said Anderson's wife, Ashley. "You can't enjoy everything to the fullest. It's not the same."
But this year, the decorated Marine has a lot to be thankful for.
Anderson arrived home safely from Afghanistan last month and will spend this Thanksgiving enjoying a traditional turkey dinner with his mother and wife's family.
"Having him here this Thanksgiving feels like I'm complete," Ashley said. "Nothing is missing anymore."
Anderson's mother, Lorraine, added, "It's very satisfying to have him home this year. He has such goodwill toward others and that's why he served."
Anderson joined the Marines at age 19.
After a semester at Fresno Community College, Anderson, who grew up in a single-parent household, decided he needed to learn how to take care of himself and others, so he joined the Marines.
After his boot camp in San Diego and additional training in North Carolina, Anderson found himself stationed at Camp Pendleton.
Then in October 2010, Anderson was deployed to the front lines of Afghanistan, where he worked on logistical convoys, fixing equipment and generators.
"We didn't really get a day off," Anderson reflected.
Surprised by the life of the people of Afghanistan, Anderson absorbed every moment of the eight-month experience.
Despite the rigorous schedule, Anderson made time to call home every other night, talking to either his mother or wife on the phone until he fell asleep.
"I remember when he called home in the beginning of his tour, and he left a message," said his mother, herself a 10-year Air Force veteran. "I replayed that message at least once a month to hear his voice."
Anderson's decision to serve his country is not the first in his family.
His twin brother, Michael, joined the Army National Guard prior Anderson enlisting in the Marines.
Michael is currently in Afghanistan and hasn't seen his brother in eight months. The twins celebrate their birthday this week on November 26.
"May Michael come home to a loving family and a bright future as his brother has," Lorraine said. "And let all who are serving overseas receive the same blessing."
Anderson's term with the Marines ends in April 2013, but he plans to re-enlist for another four years.
"I'm proud of him for thinking of re-enlisting because that shows he's being responsible and has his cap on right," Lorraine noted.
Despite the accolades and recognition, Anderson is modest when it comes to his service to the country.
"I don't see it as a big sacrifice," Anderson said. "It was worth my time. There's a lot of people making bigger sacrifices than me."
But as Anderson lifted his son in the air to place the final ornament -- a twinkling star -- on top of the Christmas tree, he said spending time with his family this Thanksgiving is an experience he will relish and enjoy to the fullest.
"It's time to reminisce. Be glad and take in all the elements of your family, and enjoy what you have now before you miss it," Anderson said. "I just wish everyone has as good of a Thanksgiving as I'm having."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.