When Dad Came Home From Iraq

Mark Strassmann is a CBS News correspondent based in Atlanta.
Lots of kids look forward to a parent coming home from a business trip. My small kids do, when I finally get back from someplace. For me and for them, there's just something special about each reunion -- the smiles, the hugs, the warmth. (And for my kids, the best part is the little gift each of them gets -- a Beanie Baby, an action figure etc -- whenever I come home after an overnight trip.)

So take all the emotions of that experience, and multiply it exponentially when you had two other factors into the mix: this homecoming involves a returning soldier from Iraq. And the homecoming is a total surprise to the kids.

In Columbia, South Carolina, Bill and Tina Moorehead created a moment of magic for their three kids. He's an Army Reservist on deployment in Iraq. After September 11th, he heard the call to duty again, and put his name back in the mix for military service. This June, he left his job as manager of a Toys-R-Us store and went overseas, to work at civil affairs projects in and around Baghdad.

When it came time for his mid-tour trip back home, he and his wife decided not to tell the kids. Part of the reason was practical: for a variety of reasons, the Pentagon sometimes changes a returning soldier's actual return date. The Mooreheads didn't want to promise their kids a particular day, and then have them be disappointed when their father was held up for whatever reason.

But another reason they kept his return a surprise was the chance to create a moment their kids would always remember.

So on Monday, their grandmother piled all three kids into the family's mini-van and drove them to the airport. The kids thought they were just going to pick up their mother from a separate trip she had taken. It all seemed very routine, very ho-hum, to eight year-old Ana, four year-old Isabelle, and little Joe, all of eighteen months.

So imagine their surprise as they waited in the baggage claim of the Charlotte airport, and saw their mother walking toward them -- and saw their father, too. "Daddy!!!," both girls squealed as they raced toward him for a family hug. For a good ten seconds, no one in the family could say anything. It was just a long hard hug. They had earned their moment. Four months of missing and worry. As Bill told me later, "I had tears in my eyes before I came down the escalator."

As they were crouched on the floor, still hugging, Ana said, "I want to cuddle with Daddy." Isabelle quickly added, "When we get home we have to cuddle him all day."

At home, the kids couldn't wait to show Daddy everything he had missed. Little Joe's walking. That's new. Isabelle had her long hair cut off, and looks like a "Mini-Me" version of big sister Ana. There were little things that had changed around the house. Bill couldn't remember where to find his son's sippy cups.

Anybody who travels for work knows it's the little things you miss when you're gone -- someone's morning smile, the sound of family laughter, the little daily routines.

Military families know all that, and then some. The member of the family in uniform may be the one on deployment, but in their own ways they all share in the sacrifice. It's certainly true for the Mooreheads.

Bill said, "I guess you can say our family made a commitment. It wasn't just me. It was the family. We are all doing our part. Tina says the separation is hard, but she had no regrets. "There are some days when I sit there and I saw I want my husband home. But in the long run I am very proud of him and I am proud of our family. And I think we did the right thing."

And to see the looks of surprise when those kids first saw their father in the airport?

Now that's "shock and awe."

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.