Fourth-grader Bentley Perdue just thought it was a normal assembly at Spruce Creek Elementary School.
He didn’t realize that something more was happening until his step-dad, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Merrick came running out in his camouflage and boots, fresh off a plane back from his deployment in the Middle East.
Even then Bentley stayed seated, but a grin unfolded on his face. He looked around like he could hardly believe it, and told his friend: “That’s my dad!”
That’s when the tears started — from Bentley, from his mom, Lauren Merrick, from teachers and onlookers. After four months of separation, the family was reunited.
“I was weeping on the plane just thinking about this,” Justin Merrick said afterward, standing next to Bentley. “It’s a big deal.”
As a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing and a crew chief for F-15 fighter jets, he spent four months in the United Arab Emirates. On his way back home, he got held up in Spain before finally making it back to Jacksonville this week.
The uncertainty about his arrival made planning the surprise difficult — but not impossible.
Bentley’s mother worked with his teacher and Spruce Creek Elementary Assistant Principal Megan Pellicer for the entire school to gather in the courtyard, some armed with posters and confetti poppers. Then the school’s mascot Bobby the Bobcat came out and got everyone to chant “USA! USA!” That was Justin Merrick’s cue to run out to the center of the courtyard.
“I didn’t think my dad was gonna come out!” Bentley said.
The family said it’s been a hard few months.
“I miss my dad a lot,” Bentley said. “All I think about is him coming home eventually and playing baseball with me in my yard.”
His dad said Bentley and his mom have the hardest job.
“It’s tough on us but we have a job to do,” said Justin Merrick, who’s also a Port Orange police officer. “We’re distracted by our jobs and the days go by. But for my son and my wife back home, it’s a long grueling time so it’s really great to be back home with them.”
The family got some attention last month on Dads Take Your Child to School Day. Bentley was bummed out he wouldn’t have anyone to go with him, so his mom showed up with Justin Merrick on Skype. (Cue even more tears.)
After the reunion on Wednesday, the family planned to go out to eat together. Justin Merrick is back for good, and will be returning to work as a police officer. Bentley only had one thing left to say about the way his school surprised him:
“It was awesome.”
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