Dublin — For nearly a year, U.S. Navy Lt. Darren Nelson has missed family birthdays, holidays and anniversaries, but on Thursday he made up for all that.
As his sons were called up on stage during a lunchtime assembly at Murray Elementary School in Dublin, they turned around and saw a man in a camouflage uniform they hadn’t seen in 11 months — their father.
The heartwarming reunion was planned by Nelson’s wife, Daylene, who said she wanted to do something special for their three boys, Brendon, 7, Ethan, 5, and Caleb, 4, as they welcomed back their dad.
“I wanted to do something sweet. The relationship between a father and son is so special, and they missed their father so much. I wanted to surprise them,” she said in a phone interview Friday.
Lt. Nelson had been deployed overseas as part of the Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa, specifically the country of Djibouti. When the couple learned he would return home soon, his wife began to plan. At first, she asked the school if she could have her husband surprise their sons in their classrooms, but then the plan transformed into something even more special.
During lunchtime, Principal Meghan Boriskin reminded students about this month’s character trait — respect. She told them they were going to learn about respecting people in the services and invited those with family members in the military or working as firefighters, police officers, nurses or teachers to join her on stage.
Brendon, who is in the second grade, and Ethan, in kindergarten, filed up on stage with a couple dozen other students. Then the principal asked Brendon if it was hard to have his father away from home for so long and how nice it would be to see him. Suddenly, from behind the curtains on stage, Lt. Nelson appeared and wrapped his young boys in a big bear hug. His wife and youngest son soon joined them.
Lt. Nelson said Brendon just uttered “daddy” before bursting into tears while his middle son Ethan repeated “daddy” over and over. Caleb asked him an important question: “I love you daddy. Are you going to have to leave again?”
“I said ‘No, I’m never leaving you again,’ ” Lt. Nelson said.
Daylene Nelson said it has meant the world to her to have her best friend back. The two have known each other since high school and have been married for 13 years; they moved to Dublin in 2017.
“To have that little part of me missing, it was hard. But I had to put my emotions aside and make sure my children were loved,” she said.
Once at home, the three boys piled up on their dad and began wrestling, jumping on the trampoline — whatever they wanted to do, Lt. Nelson said.
He said he’ll be home for an extended period and likely won’t have to deploy again for another four years.
They’re also planning a family trip soon. Although he couldn’t reveal the exact terms (the family was in the car together, driving while being interviewed), Lt. Nelson hinted that it’s related to a certain streaming service with a plus sign.
“We were just so excited that we got to be a part of this, something a little more positive,” he said.
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