Just a month ago, Marine Master Sgt. Rey Pagan was seizing and destroying enemy weapons in Iraq's Anbar province.
This week, he was welcomed home by the Manteca, Calif., school board.
"There is no way to say thank you to all of you," he said.
Pagan's thanks went especially to Woodward Elementary School, where students last spring gathered donations to send to Pagan and his fellow Marines.
"Shampoo, powdered Gatorade, wipes — all kinds of stuff," remembers school clerk Debie McLarty. "Anything you could think of, they brought in. It was crazy."
Pagan and his Marines thanked the kids by recording a playful video, surrounded by their bounty, taped right in their barracks.
"Thanks, guys, for all the candy, all the food you sent us," says Pagan on the tape. "All the guys thank you."
Pagan now says the gifts were a big lift, coming the same week that two of his Marines were badly wounded.
"We were bombed and mortared and rocketed on a daily basis," he says. "It meant a lot to them that it wasn't all the bad news that we were hearing."
It was a lift, too, for Pagan's 9-year-old son Rey Jr., a student at Woodward, who sorely missed his father.
"He stood quite a bit taller," remembers teacher Michelle Crippen, "and really proud of his dad."
Today, after deployments lasting three of the last four years, Pagan and his wife Silvia are focused on just being home.
"I think you appreciate life and family much more," says Silvia.
"I appreciate the life in this country a lot more," adds Pagan.
While students at Woodward Elementary got a hometown lesson about sacrifice and answering the nation's call.