VIRGINIA BEACH — Marines have a reputation for being tough, but when Jarrell Williams walked into Alanton Elementary School on Thursday, he couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down his face.
The 33-year-old gunnery sergeant had returned home from a seven-month deployment to Kuwait earlier this month. But he’s stationed in California, so he didn’t get to his family in Virginia until recently.
But he kept that a secret from his kids.
His sons, Kobe, 6, a first-grader; and Kal-El, 8, who’s in second grade; attend the Virginia Beach elementary school and Thursday was just another day for them. They went to their morning classes and by lunchtime, were ready to eat.
As they joined their classmates in the cafeteria, the principal, Charlene Garran, took the stage.
Speaking into a microphone, Garran reminded her students that April was the month of the military child, a national recognition of children who have parents or guardians serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Garran asked how many students had parents in the military.
Hands shot up.
Garran asked how many had parents in the military who were currently deployed.
Hands shot up.
Of those, Garran chose Kobe and Kal-El. She called them to the stage.
“Kids are sacrificing as well when their parents are in the military,” Garran said.
The brothers ran up to her, the hushed, high-pitched voices of their friends popping up across the cafeteria. They told Garran their dad was deployed. That he was a Marine. That he had been gone for seven months. That he was due home by the end of the month.
That’s when the blue curtains behind them were drawn open, and dad was waiting with open arms.
The boys ran to him, embracing him with a long hug.
For Williams, this moment was not at all unfamiliar.
Both his parents are retired Navy. His father served for 30 years, he said, and his mother put in 20. They moved around a lot when he was growing up.
He can’t see himself putting in 30 years — he doesn’t want to miss out on everything, he said.
After the surprise, Williams admitted he wasn’t sure how his sons were going to react.
“It has been a while,” he told reporters. “Been gone for quite some time, so a lot of different emotions go through my head. You know, are they happy? Are they disappointed?”
He talked about how he wants to be more active in his children’s lives and how much catching up he has to do.
“It was just a happy moment to see him,” Kobe said.
About a third of the students in Virginia Beach public schools are in families affiliated with the military, Garran said. Some kids who have parents serving go to their teachers or others and want to talk about it, she said, adding they want to express their feelings, and it’s the school’s job to listen and make them feel comfortable.
“It’s hard, right?” Garran said, “because they miss their mommies or they miss their daddies … and that’s hard on kids.”
It can uproot their routines, she said. The school has counselors who can talk to kids and their families about what they’re going through.
Before Williams returns to his base in California, he plans to do what his sons want.
Kobe wasn’t sure what that might entail.
But Kal-El had a quick answer, saying with a wide smile: Laser tag.
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