Blindfolded son practicing Taekwondo gets surprised by Soldier home from deployment

For about 24 hours between his arrival home Sunday and when he surprised his youngest son, Tennessee Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Rob Cesternino was kept in seclusion.

But it was worth it.

“Now I’m out of witness protection, and I’m allowed to be a human being again,” Cesternino said. “I was not allowed to call any of my friends. I was not allowed to be seen in public. I was not allowed to go anywhere. I was not allowed to do anything. I was like, wow. I need to go back to Syria where I can get more freedom.”

Cesternino returned Sunday from a 10-month deployment with the Tennessee Army National Guard’s 230th Sustainment Brigade. The 25-soldier unit left May 20, went to Fort Hood, Texas and then to Kuwait. During his deployment, he and five other soldiers spent time in Jordan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom Spartan Shield and southern Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Cesternino’s final secret mission involved stealth, cunning and a bit of hand-to-hand combat, but it wasn’t overseas. Rather, Cesternino, his wife, Leah, and several friends kept his return home quiet until he could surprise his 9-year-old son, Luca, during a taekwondo session Monday at Success Martial Arts Center in Lebanon.

While Luca Cesternino was blindfolded and sparred with instructors, his dad snuck in and took over the exercise.

It didn’t take long for Luca Cesternino to discover just how special his sparring partner was to him.

“When he said, ‘Hey Shib.’ He always used to call me Shib when I was little. He wanted to nickname me, so he called me Shib,” Luca Cesternino said.

Rob Cesternino said the nickname came from when his son used to sing the Georgia Satellites’ “Hippy Hippy Shakes” as the “Shibby Shibby Shakes” when he was younger. The nickname stuck and became something unique between the father and son.

And when Luca Cesternino took off his blindfold, he quickly hugged his father he hadn’t seen in nearly 10 months as the tears rolled.

“I love you, and I’m so proud of you,” Rob Cesternino told his son. “You were such a big boy while I was gone.”

It was a surprise because Luca Cesternino didn’t expect his dad to arrive until Friday, and there he was nearly a full week early.

“I was like, wow,” Luca Cesternino said. “Everybody came here to see my dad and me. … It’s just excitement. I felt joy in my heart. … I will never leave his side.”

Jason Warren, an instructor at Success Martial Arts Center, presented Rob Cesternino with an honorary black belt and gave Luca Cesternino a camouflage belt with his name and the word “courage” embroidered on it.

Rob Cesternino was quick to give credit to his wife for the support she offered during his deployment.

“We are both sitting here enjoying this, but the person we both have to thank is his mom and my wife, Leah,” Rob Cesternino said. “It starts and ends with her. She makes us better.

“If you are a husband or a wife of a service member, if you are a child of a service member, they deserve more applause than we get, because they have a tougher row to hoe. And Wilson County, the city of Lebanon, we’ve never lived in a community who takes better care of their own, ever. And they took care of us while we were gone.

“It’s tough. We don’t give enough thought to how tough it is on the family we leave behind.”

Prior to the reunion, Rob Cesternino pondered whether he’d cry when he saw his son as he waited outside the back of the taekwondo studio.

“I’m probably going to take my cue from him,” Rob Cesternino said. “If I see that he’s going to lose it, you can stick a fork in me, because I’m going to be done. He’ll carry dad over the ledge with him. But if he’s strong, I think I’ll be strong.”

He also predicted his son would be upset with him for dodging his most recent calls. But it was all part of the secret mission.

“He’s probably going to be agitated, because the last couple of times he’s tried to Facetime me, I haven’t taken his calls, because I’ve been with Leah. So it’s probably been about a week,” Rob Cesternino said.

“I spoke to Luca every couple of weeks. I mean, he’s 9. ‘Hey dad, I’m out.’ A couple of things — ‘hey dad, how are you doing? I miss you, I’m out.’ Leah keeps him so active in everything around here. He’s really big in the karate. We played basketball in the city league and did some gymnastics. She’s really big in the Salvation Army, the after-school program they have over on Lake Street, so he goes over there a lot and does a lot after school over there. She’s kept him very engaged.”

Luca Cesternino is the youngest of six children. Zachary Cesternino, the oldest, served in the Coast Guard. Colin and Kaitlin Cesternino are the next oldest. Michael Cesternino, who died in 2015, served in the Navy. And Elizabeth Cesternino’s enlistment in the Air Force will end in May. She plans to finish her degree at the University of Tennessee. She’s currently a digital imaging ultrasound specialist at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

“We are a military family,” Rob Cesternino said. “My family served in every single generation all the way back to World War I. It was expected in my family. I tell people that the military is a family business. I have a son that was in the Coast Guard; I have a son that was in the Navy; my daughter was in the Air Force. It’s just expected that you wear the uniform of your country. You don’t have to make it a career.”

In addition to his service, Rob Cesternino owned a private security business in Nashville and finished his second term on the Lebanon City Council in November.

Rob Cesternino entered military active duty in January 1985 and continued until 1995. During that time, he had multiple overseas and stateside assignments, including a stint as a United Nations’ peacekeeper during the Balkans War in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Following active duty, the National Guard became part of his civilian life. Since 1995, he served in the Georgia Army National Guard and Georgia Air Guard, as well as the Washington Army National Guard. In 2014, Cesternino became a member of Tennessee Army National Guard’s 230th Sustainment Brigade.

In addition to his son’s reunion, community members decorated the Lebanon Square and other areas in the city with yellow ribbons and special messages on marquees to welcome him home.

“The goal of this project is to paint the town yellow,” said Leah Cesternino. “We have had a tremendous amount of support from the community, volunteering their time, marquees and putting yellow bows at their homes and places of business. We could not feel more supported. Operation Yellow Ribbon is part of the welcome home experience we titled Operation Welcome Home. The yellow bows not only welcome Rob home, they also represent all veterans.”

The Cesterninos’ friends and family sold the bows and painted Lebanon yellow to help raise awareness. The Facebook group @OPYellowRibbon was created to keep family members up to date.

All proceeds from Operation Welcome Home will benefit Our Military Kids, an organization that empowers children with sports, arts and enrichment during parents’ deployment or recovery. Visit for more information.

The American Legion Post 281 will play host to the Welcome Home Veterans event March 30 at the Mill in Lebanon. Rob Cesternino will be honored at noon during the event.

Rob Cesternino said he missed the routine more than anything.

“That daily routine was, by far, what I missed the most,” he said. “We’re getting up and going to school tomorrow morning.”

On Tuesday, he and his wife planned to eat lunch at Town Square Social, a restaurant that opened on the Lebanon Square while he was deployed. He said Leah Cesternino wasn’t allowed to eat there either, so they could both go for the first time when he returned home.

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