What a ride I took today, Tuesday, with the 38 Petaluma-based National Guard combat engineers who came home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

The Guard allowed me a space in a caravan of police cruisers and motorcycles, Patriot Guard Harleys and other vehicles that gathered at San Francisco International Airport to escort the soldiers’ bus.

What a rush. All the way from the airport to Petaluma, CHP and local police officers stopped traffic or nudged it into the right lanes to allow the procession to zip along in the fast lane.

All along 19th Avenue in the city, fire trucks had parked and their crews stood at attention and saluted the men from the highly decorated 235th Engineer Company. On Highway 101 in Marin, more firefighters and a fair number of citizens saluted or waved from the highway overpasses.

We reached Petaluma in record time — police escort, the only way to drive — and the soldiers melted into the embraces of their wives and children and other loved ones.

Sgt. Leonard Saborit’s looked surprised as he approached stepdaughter Erika Cruz, 14, with his arms opened wide. Since he saw her during a leave last summer, she’d started high school in Marysville and begun wearing makeup.

Erika’s mother, Maria, said her soldier husband, a 24-year veteran of military service, looked good to her: “skinny and happy, happy to be home.”

Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Morey couldn’t stop caressing the head of his 4-year-old son, Tyler, or take his eyes off her sister, McKynzie, who’s 5. Their mother, Karynne, said that when Brandon is gone she’s so grateful to be a soldier’s wife in the age of Webcams and Skype — at least they can stay in touch.

“Modern technology has been awesome,” Karynne said. Her husband was looking forward to a leisurely family Thanksgiving in Sacramento after what he called “the craziest year of my life.”

As happy as he is to be back to his beautiful family, Brandon said he does want to return to Afghanistan. “I don’t want to go right now, but there’s still work to be done,” he said.

Staff Sgt. William Wirt of Ukiah said he and his wife have no schedule set for Thanksgiving Day, and that’s exactly how it wants it. Said the soldier home for the holidays, “I just spent the last year being everywhere on time.”