Deployed soldier returns home to surprise his son

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On a blazing hot Friday afternoon, recess is underway at Lake Carolina Elementary School, tucked away in the tiny town of Blythewood. First-graders are whizzing past teachers, swinging from monkey bars and generally doing what rambunctious children do to expend some energy. Six-year-old Luke Ross is unaware, but he’s about to get a long-awaited surprise.

Luke gives his dad, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Ross, a big hug. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Luke gives his dad, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Ross, a big hug. (photo by Kelly Petty)

One of the teachers rings a bell, and all the students gather together to await instruction. The teacher says there is a surprise waiting for one of the students. A soldier has returned from deployment. The teacher tells the students to applaud the soldier.

Just then, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Ross comes around the corner toward the group. Luke peeks through the sea of children, not sure what’s happening. Then it clicks. Like a bolt of lightning, little Luke races toward his dad and jumps into his arms. Dad’s home.

With the help of Lake Carolina Elementary staff and teachers, Luke’s mother, Amy, planned an unforgettable reunion with Matthew Ross and his son. Luke’s teacher, Kim Johnson, said it was a team effort.

“It was amazing and really neat,” she said.

Johnson said the staff was informed back in August that Luke’s father would be returning sometime soon. He had been deployed to Osan Air Base in South Korea as part of the 20th Fighter Wing Airmen on a five-month deployment.

Without a concrete date, though, the teachers still had to scramble to make the moment memorable.

Johnson said that she had all of Luke’s classmates sign a poster, on which she later wrote “Welcome Home,” when the class went outside.

“The kids didn’t know,” she said.

Principal Andrea Berry said pulling off the event took some teamwork. Amy Ross called the school letting them know that her husband was returning Friday. Between Berry, Johnson, the guidance counselor and other teachers and staff, they came up with a clever plan to surprise Luke.

This was Ross’s first deployment, Berry said.

The school works to provide a comfortable atmosphere for students of military families. Lake Carolina has a sizable population of military kids, with nearly 20 percent of the students having at least one active-duty parent.

“I truly believe deployment is not just a struggle for mom and dad, it’s a struggle for the whole family,” Berry said.

Berry credits guidance counselor Jessica Skinner’s efforts to support students who make the transition into the school since they often move two or three times.

Each month, Skinner arranges lunch for the military kids. Through the Victory Initiative, a program funded by the federal Department of Defense Education Activity, the school is able to provide the meals. The students gather in Skinner’s office where they chow down on pizza. She lends her ear to the kids and gets them to talk to each other.

“She is proactive with developing relationships with the students,” Berry said.

Matthew Ross said that military deployment can be rough on kids, adding that each one handles it differently. Not having grandparents, uncles and aunts around, Amy said, is hard for her and Luke since it’s just the two of them.

The Ross family is originally from Virginia and have lived in the Columbia area for the past two years.

It was also tough on Matthew Ross because he had to live in unfamiliar territory.

“It’s not America,” he said.

Seeing his son and wife was a well-deserved welcome home gift.

“I’m just relieved to be back,” Ross said. “It’s exciting to see him.”

After the students gathered around Luke and his dad to ask questions, everyone headed inside to check out the classroom and welcome-home poster. Luke hurried his dad into the room where he played show-and-tell pointing out his work on the board and showing off his desk.

Then they went to look at the poster his classmates signed. Hannah, one of Luke’s classmates, showed off her signature.

“I signed here,” she said.

A student named Cameron suggested that Luke hang the poster on his wall in his bedroom, to which Luke said, “I don’t have any room.”

Another kid chimed in, “You can put it on your ceiling,” and the students burst into laughter.

Luke spun around, a ball of energy ready to get home to hang out with his dad. In fact, his teacher said he begged his parents to be off from school for a few days.

Their response? “Mom and Dad said ‘no.’ ”