Laguna Niguel — Hayden Nieznanski was looking down, writing Chinese characters in a letter to his father — a Marine deployed to the Middle East and around the Horn of Africa — when he caught a glimpse of Marine Corps camouflage and boots.
He glanced up in his Marian Bergeson Elementary School classroom — and there was his father, Master Sgt. Jeremy Nieznanski, smiling at him.
Hayden, 10 and his brother, Max, 6, are part of a YMCA after school program at the Laguna Niguel school.
“I’m actually confused,” Hayden said Wednesday, Feb. 27, as he stumbled over other students sitting in front of him and falling into his father’s arms along with his brother.
“Are you leaving again, Daddy?” Max asked.
“No, I’m not leaving again,” Jeremy Nieznanski said, hugging the two boys and reviewing the letter Hayden had been writing with help from the school’s Mandarin Immersion Program.
The letter was the second part of a YMCA effort known as Stockings for the Troops, which acknowledges the service of troops overseas during the holidays. The boys and their father had been the focus in December, when students in the after school program filled holiday stockings with goodies and sent handwritten notes thanking troops for their service.
On Wednesday, the students were following up writing letters to Nieznanski’s unit, when his two sons got the surprise.
“We thought he wasn’t coming home for awhile,” Hayden Nieznanski said afterward. “At first I just thought it was a random Marine walking in.”
Jeremy Nieznanski, the operations chief for Combat Logistics Battalion 13, was among more than 2,400 Marines and sailors returning this week from a seven-month, 17-day deployment. They are part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary unit that left San Diego on July 10 for a Western Pacific and Middle East deployment with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group.
Nieznanski returned Wednesday at Del Mar Beach on Camp Pendleton. This was his sixth deployment in his 16-year Marine Corps career. It was the fourth deployment since his wedding in 2010.
“I was nervous and excited,” he said, choking up as he recalled the early morning arrival. “It was a surreal moment and it was really cold.”
Amanda Nieznanski, Jeremy’s wife, waited for him at the barracks in the homecoming area at the base. When they saw each other, they hugged and cried, she said.
“It’s hard with him being away,” she said. “It’s hard not having my family together.”
Before the couple showed up to surprise their two boys at the school, they hit Islands at the Shops of Mission Viejo for fish tacos. Then they waited in the school’s parking lot for the perfect moment to walk into the classroom.
“The hardest thing for me is feeling guilty for leaving my family and leaving her to do everything,” Jeremy Nieznanski said about his wife, who works full-time in cyber security and is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of San Diego. “She’s the real hero of this deployment. We pack our bags and leave. She stays here and makes sure everything is OK.”
After their reunion, the family drove off to pick up one-year-old Maverick at a local daycare.
Last year, even before his deployment, Jeremy Nieznanski was regularly away from the family, training abroad and at Marine Corps Airstation Twentynine Palms. He missed Maverick’s first words and steps.
After leaving in July, he missed his eighth wedding anniversary, Christmas and Max’s sixth birthday.
In her husband’s absence, Amanda Nieznanski has had to fill the role of both mother and father. Though she has some access to her husband via Skype and email, she couldn’t rely on regular communication.
“Often I felt that by the time he received my emails any news or questions I had would be irrelevant, so I kept a lot to myself,” she said.
In January, she found out her husband was set to return in February. She did her best to keep him relevant in the boys’ everyday lives by sharing memories and plans for the future with them.
Just on Tuesday, Hayden asked his mom to have his father download the Fortnite video game app,
“I wanted to make sure he had an account so we could play with each other while he’s gone,” Hayden said.
But Hayden got something even better. His father played the video game with him in person.
Dad also fulfilled Max’s request to play Legos.
“I definitely have a lot of missed time to make up for,” Jeremy Nieznanski said. “It feels really good.”
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