Although intentionally avoiding television news of the war in Iraq, Kristen Hager's heartfelt prayers were never far from the war zone. Bryan, her husband of five years, was piloting a Navy plane over treacherous ground for much of the time during a six-month deployment to Italy.

Kristen said her prayer life multiplied during Bryan's deployment. "You realize how much you don't pray before they leave, because your prayer life increases so much when they go overseas and you know they are in harm's way on a daily basis," she said. She prayed for his safety and for his wisdom in making decisions in tough situations.

She also invested in a continuous supply of greeting cards to send to him, mailing one every day. "I should have bought stock in Hallmark," she quipped. Although they talked by phone and e-mail daily, the cards provided a tangible link for the couple.

Kristen held the last card as she waited for the familiar drone of jet engines to signal Bryan's arrival back home Dec. 5 at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. She waited with several other wives, members of the spouses' club, in a cavernous hangar. With this "tight group of ladies," Kristen studied Stormie Omartian's book, "The Power of a Praying Wife," and the Bible. They took turns offering hope and support.

"When one of them was down, we would go and take them ice cream, and sit with them and cry or laugh or bring a movie - whatever we needed to do," she said. "They are going through the same thing. They can totally understand your emotions and everything you are feeling in that situation."

Exactly when expected, Lieutenant Bryan Hager's P3 circled the airfield and delivered 11 crew members to joyous family reunions.

Bryan was the first one off the plane. Red roses in hand, the 28-year-old pilot bounded into Kristen's arms. After several minutes of hugs and kisses, he read Kristen's final card. He grinned, but declined to disclose its contents.

"It is good to be home. I'm glad we are finally back," Bryan told the Florida Baptist Witness only minutes after his homecoming. Although happy to serve his country, he said, "I'm just glad to be back with my wife."

The couple met in 1997 when both were students at Texas A&M University and attended the same church, Central Baptist Church in College Station. When they married in 1999 and graduated, Bryan took the former Kristen Dunn, who lived in the same house from birth until college, from Texas into a nomadic military lifestyle.

"I swore up and down I would never marry a military man, but God changed my heart, and I'm glad He did," Kristen said.

Bryan is one of three brothers serving in the military. The others are Marines. Garrett recently returned from Iraq while Michael, the youngest, will arrive in Iraq in February. For the first time in three years, everyone in the family will go home for Christmas to Bangs, Texas, "a little bitty farm town," as Kristen described it.

Bryan's hometown, with 1,500 residents, had three churches when he was growing up, and the churches took turns hosting the Cub Scouts. Although Bryan had been in the Church of Christ since his birth, he made a profession of faith in the Baptist church and joined there during junior high. The couple has attended Baptist churches wherever their deployments have taken them.

The couple are members of Fruit Cove Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Bryan teaches a Sunday School class of young married couples and Kristen volunteers in the recreation ministry. During Bryan's deployment, another Navy pilot manned his teaching position. Luke Patterson served with Bryan in Pensacola, Corpus Christi and Jacksonville; he left earlier this month to serve in the same region as Bryan. Bryan returned to his class Dec. 12.

Both Bryan and Kristen are grateful for their church family. While Bryan was away, church members called Kristen to ask if they could help with yard work and sent cards of encouragement and prayers.