SUMMERVILLE - Uniform by uniform, teary eye by teary eye, soldiers are turning up at the airports to hugs, home for Christmas from war-torn Afghanistan. Each reunion is a heartwringer.

Not every military member over there is a soldier, though, and not every job is fighting. Somebody, after all, has to pay for it.

So among the soldiers who landed in Charleston last week was Siamak "Mak" Araghi, a civilian Army Corps of Engineers finance officer, who volunteered for months of duty at an occasionally bombed headquarters near Kabul. His Summerville family waited at the gate, his 8-year-old daughter Salma as close as she could get.

Sam Araghi, Mak's 13-year-old son, said his dad getting home before Christmas was the best gift he could get this year.

The job offer sent out early this year among Army Corps civilian staffers was daunting: finance officer for Special Operations, near Kabul. One requirement was even more daunting: the ability to speak the language.

So how hesitantly did Araghi reply to the email?

"On a whim, almost as a joke," he said. How did Donna Araghi, his wife of 15 years, take it? She rolled her eyes.

"I knew it was coming," she said.

Araghi, a finance officer for the Army Corps' Charleston district, is a native of Tehran, Iran. He speaks, reads and writes in two Afghani dialects of Farsi; in Tajiki, a Persian dialect; and in Spanish. Oh, and he has worked with Special Operations before. As much as anything, Araghi, 59, was curious about whether he would hear back. He told Donna it wouldn't be for weeks, one way or another.

Three calls came the next day. Within two weeks he was on the plane. The Kabul job meant a promotion, a pay raise and something to shine on his resume. Along with wanting to do his duty, Araghi also had an anxious curiosity to see what has become of a land so near his homeland.

"It was very difficult. It breaks your heart," he said. "Little boys and girls playing in the dirt, playing in the trash. You couldn't help feel sorry for them."

Donna Araghi wasn't too worried about her husband. She knows the level of security put in place.

But Mak couldn't bring himself to tell his elderly parents, who had to leave Iran in the violence surrounding the fall of the shah in 1979, he said. His parents are now in the U.S. Araghi, then an exchange student in the United States, couldn't return to Iran. He has been a U.S. citizen since 1985.

While he was in Afghanistan, Araghi reassured Salma, Sam and 11-year-old daughter, Leila, by Skype, phone calls and email, that he was safe in headquarters.

"I drew a very bright picture," he said. He was at dinner in the mess the first time the air raid siren sounded.

"You never know how fast you can run. It's amazing how adrenalin takes over," he said. But human nature being what it is, after a while you adjusted and went about your business, he said.

At home it was tough. The kids heard about Afghanistan constantly in school. It didn't take Salma long to absorb that her dad was on the other side of the world and people were dying. She took to curling up in bed at night with her mom to watch the news.

The first time Araghi heard that he might be home for the holidays was in the fall. With their overseas experience, the couple knew just how iffy that could be.

"I told him, 'If you can't make it home for Christmas, we'll wait for Christmas,' " Donna said. And they were ready to do just that, despite the tree and the lights and the wrapped presents, until they saw him step off the plane. It had been close. The day after he left Bagram Airfield, a bombing shut down all outbound flights.

Now Araghi is home, has to let his parents know where he's been, and he's figured out how. He has a Christmas gift of jewelry for his mother. He will tell her he brought it all the way home from Afghanistan.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.