DAWSON, Ga. -- The scene was similar to probably many across the country.
Family and friends gathered for a Fourth of July celebration with a full grill of meat, abundant beverages and dance music blaring from nearby speakers.
But unlike a lot of other patriotic celebrations, this one had an extra dose of gratitude splashed upon everyone's faces as Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Montaveous T. Thomas Sr. enjoyed the outpouring of love after returning from his second tour of Iraq.
Thomas, 28, who attended Westover Comprehensive High School before moving to Bellevue, Neb., and graduating from Bellevue West High, left July 27, 2009, and returned home for Father's Day. His first tour of Iraq was from 2003 to 2005.
Thomas' mother, Glenda Poole, helped organize the afternoon Fourth of July celebration at Thomas' grandmother's rural Dawson home off Bellflower Road. More than 100 family members and friends attended the Sunday gathering.
"I'm just soaking it up, relaxing and getting back to normal," said Thomas, who now lives Omaha, Neb. "This is where I spent a lot my childhood, so it's just nice to be back here and see it."
Throughout the day, Thomas and others smiled easily and joyously as Marvin Sease's soul music played from uncle Ernest Jones' yellow Hummer, while uncle Luther Humphries provided the tantalizing smells of grilling ribs, chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs and bratwurst.
Poole said her son also specifically asked for soul food, which she doesn't cook as often and deferred to her sister Bertha Holloway and mother Rebecca Humphries. She cooked collard greens and pigs feet, as well as fresh corn and peas with ham hocks, potato salad and other summer standards. Caramel cake and cherry cake with cream cheese frosting topped off the menu.
Between catching up with family and friends, Thomas threw a football around with his sons, Montaveous Jr., 10, and Travis, 6, who he named after his 23-year-old brother Travis Thomas.
Being able to have her son home from Iraq meant a great deal to Poole, an administrator at Creekside Christian Academy in McDonough.
"I feel relieved because for the second tour you always get more anxious," she said. "But this time I was able to talk to him every day. Skype is working for the soldiers. We just wanted to let him know we're so proud of him and that he's back home."
Aunt Holloway helped raise Thomas and remembered taking him to First Albany Deliverance Cathedral when he was younger.
"I'm proud of him and I thank God for keeping a shield of protection around him," she said.
The family's prayers while he served in Iraq were needed and appreciated, Thomas said. Serving with the 561st Regional Support Group based out of Omaha, Neb., Thomas worked with Victory Base Complex commander Col. Arlan DeBlieck and 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command Brig. Gen. Mark Corson. The 6-foot, 190-pound Thomas has served in the Army Reserves for 10 years after signing up in September 2001 before Sept. 11.
"A lot of them like us, but at the same time we're an occupying force and how would you like it if someone regulated you," Thomas said of the Iraqis. "I think for the most part, they're glad we're over there to establish a true democracy.
"I've been shot at, mortars fell next to me, rockets shot at me, but I thank God he protected me," he continued. "I pray six times a day and they (Muslims) pray five times a day. It made me a stronger Christian (being over there). I kept my Bible over my heart in my left pocket everyday."
Although he's now three inches taller and 90 pounds heavier than his older brother, Travis Thomas said he has always looked up to his brother. When they were younger, they frequently competed in basketball and sports video games.
"It's nice to have us all together for a good reason, instead of a funeral or something bad in the family," said Travis Thomas, who played football for the University of Nebraska at Omaha and plans to graduate from Georgia State University in December as a film and video major.
Besides having Thomas coming home uninjured, Jones was also thankful that he came home with his mind intact.
"A lot of them come home and don't have their mind with them," he said. "I'm very proud of him. He's made something of himself, traveled around the world and has done something to protect other people."
Thomas will stay in Atlanta and Dawson for the next month before he returns to duty with the 561st Regional Support Group. Although he has a year left on his current enlistment contract, Thomas said he plans to enlist again.
"The Vietnam vets didn't get treated as well as we're getting for this proper homecoming," Thomas said as he looked over his mother's homemade "Welcome Home SSG Montaveous Thomas" sign taped to her red GMC Envoy parked next to Bellflower Road.
"It's just nice to have all the families coming together and the food," he added.