The first stop Friday afternoon was Gus’ seventh-grade classroom. Then onto Marigny’s fifth-grade classroom before heading to the playground of Holy Name of Jesus school, where Jack was playing tag with his second-grade P.E. class. The shock — and sheer joy — was evident on the faces of all three Heller children. They thought their father would not return from his deployment until the end of May.
But when Sherry Heller got confirmation about two weeks ago that her husband, Marine Corps Reservist 1st Sergeant Vincent Heller, would be coming home three months early, “We kept it top secret,” she said. “Even his mother doesn’t know.”
Sherry Heller said she found out there was a possibility that he would return early about a month ago but didn’t want to say anything to the children because the dates often change, and she didn’t want to get their hopes up.
It was Vincent Heller’s idea to surprise the kids, Sherry Heller said. While typically a homecoming is a celebration of the Marine, she said her husband wanted it to be about celebrating the children. “They’ve been such troopers,” she said of the seven months without their dad.
They stepped up and pitched in whenever needed — helping take care of each other as well as helping their working mom take care of the household, she said.
But there were a number of events that they missed having their dad attend, like Jack’s Cub Scout camping trip. However, because of his early return, he’ll now be able to attend Gus’ graduation and Jack’s first communion.
“It was so hard,” Sherry Heller said, of keeping the secret from her children. She said she thought she was busted when Gus saw a text on Thursday from his dad about boarding a plane. He asked his mom, and though the plane was in Virginia, she quickly covered it up by telling him he was traveling between Germany and the Republic of Georgia.
Vincent Heller arrived in New Orleans on Thursday, just in time for his wife’s birthday. When he came through the gate at the airport he wore a bow on his head — his wife’s present. The two went out to dinner and stayed at a hotel, leaving the kids with Sherry Heller’s mother and telling them she was at a business meeting. While they were at dinner, the children called their mother numerous times, and she had to make sure they didn’t hear their father’s voice.
Sherry Heller said it was a relief that her husband’s third deployment was a non-combat assignment in the Republic of Georgia. His first deployment was during Desert Storm in 1990, and the second was to Iraq in 2003. Though she knew he was safe, she said she missed him very much and that it was challenging to be a single mother.
While in Georgia training infantry to continue stability in Afghanistan as the U.S. Marines leave, Vincent Heller helped organize a Christmas drive for an orphanage where many of the children were terminally ill.
Raising money for the postage, the Holy Name of Jesus School sent 21 boxes full of toys, shoes, bedding, pacifiers and other supplies.
Sherry Heller said her kids were very enthusiastic about the effort and insisted she buy things to send.
On Friday, interrupting a lesson on the use of italics, underlining and quotation marks, Sherry Heller peeked into Gus’ classroom and said she needed to tell him something. Vincent Heller then appeared in the doorway, towering well over 6 feet tall and dressed sharply in his Marine uniform.
After their embrace Gus said in astonishment, “I didn’t think he’d be home until May 30. I haven’t seen him in so long.”
Gus, a small version of his dad in appearance, said he most missed having his dad around for his numerous sporting practices and games.
Gus and his parents next crept up to the door of Marigny’s classroom.
Marigny jumped up, ran to her father and burst into tears.
Hugging him tightly, she cried, “What are you doing here? I’m so happy to see you. I missed you.” They didn’t let go of each other for several minutes.
Marigny said she most missed her father’s humor. “He’s so funny — he always makes me laugh,” she said. Marigny said one of her favorite things to do with her dad was just to ride around in his pickup truck listening to country music.
She held his hand as they walked down the stairs to the playground.
Jack sprinted across the playground when he saw his dad, who quickly scooped Jack up into his arms.
With a giant gap-toothed grin, Jack hugged his dad before running back out on the playground for another round of tag.
Once the second-grade class was seated on the asphalt, the P.E. teacher led a loud chant of “Welcome home Jack’s dad!”
The next stop immediately after picking the youngsters up from school was Vincent Heller’s mother’s house, where along with the happy reunion he hoped to also get forgiveness for surprising her along with the children.
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