By Judy Christie
Army Spc. Kelita Baskin, 22, was just back from a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan when she slipped into a Louisiana school with a happy mission. She had only 10 days at home, and she wanted to make the time special.
That called for a surprise reunion with her siblings.
Baskin was only 20 when her mother died of cancer, leaving five younger siblings for her to help raise. Her bond with her brothers and sisters is exceptionally close, and she joined the Army to help provide a better life for them.
To set up her surprise, she told her siblings, who live with an aunt when she is gone, that her homecoming was delayed. Then she turned to a former high school teacher to set joyful shock in motion. First, she would pick up her middle-school sister, then her high-school brother, and then they would go to the elementary school that three siblings and a cousin attend.
Enter Plantation Park Elementary Principal Tonya Hilburn.
For Hilburn, it was a first - a military reunion in the hallways of her school. She managed to get all four youngsters out of class without raising suspicion.
Just as Baskin might do in her job as an Army police officer, she kept out of sight until the right moment, then stepped around a corner.
Joyful chaos ignited - and her military demeanor was challenged.
“I had to keep myself from crying,” she said. “It was just so good to see them.” And she was overcome with how big they were. “They're outgrowing me. I'm going to be the shortest sibling.”
The children ran to her, hugging and unable to hold back their tears. The reunion was not only emotional for her family but for other students, faculty and administrators. “We always talk about how our school is a family,” Hilburn said. “Seeing the reunion just tugs at your heartstrings.”
In addition, it provided an opportunity for students to learn more about the military and to show appreciation to Baskin. “I was excited because the kids had talked about her, and I had never met her,” Hilburn said. “She's really inspiring them to want to serve.”
From her experience, she offers suggestions for others: “Make it as special as you can and capture that moment for them.”
The world agrees with her. Surprise military reunions have exploded in numbers in recent years and provide memorable moments for families. But they also remind civilians of the sacrifices made when those who serve are deployed or take other assignments away from home.
Military homecoming videos became popular on YouTube nearly a decade ago and have gathered tens of millions of views to date.
According to YouTube officials, reunion videos have gone from a viral fad to an enduring genre that resonates with the public. Viewers “come back to them often to connect with these intensely emotional and heartwarming, real-life moments,” said Kevin Allocca, head of Culture & Trends at YouTube and author of “ Videocracy: How YouTube Is Changing the World . . . with Double Rainbows, Singing Foxes, and Other Trends We Can't Stop Watching.”
“In some ways, they represent the best of what web video can do, intimately connecting us with the authentic experience of others and celebrating what matters most in life," he said. “New ones continue to be posted, and old ones can continue to draw viewers for years as they remain available for us to revisit.”
The videos show spouses, children, and others going about their daily lives … and in walks their loved ones to many squeals, tears, and hugs. Some are quite creative, with Daddy dressed up like Spider-Man, or a loving welcome from family and crowd in Atlanta. Others are smaller but just as heartfelt, such as the veteran surprising his grandparents at Thanksgiving.
While many reunions occur at schools, others are at home, in airports, and even take place during big ceremonies, such as college graduations.
All are filled with raw emotion and bring tears to the eyes of viewers.
And almost all bring readjustment nerves along with the excitement.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Hugh Davis, returning with about 100 other soldiers from his second deployment in Kuwait, surprised his three children in a big event at Fort Bliss, Texas -a homecoming that brought joy and anxiety.
With flight times changing, his reunion was late in the evening, and the children watched movies and had their faces painted with other families while they waited. “I thought that was a great idea…It definitely helps with them having to wait,” he said.
His wife, Cecily, was nervously trying to pull off the surprise. “The kids were confused as to why we were out driving at night,” she said. “I was very anxious, the whole butterflies-in-your-stomach thing.”
She was thinking of how much her husband had missed the children and how much they had missed him. They took pictures the night he left and the night he came back - and the children had grown so much in that time. “It is kind of like seeing them for the first time,” her husband said.
Despite the logistics, Cecily Davis encourages others not to forgo the special homecoming. “Surprises are always fun,” she said. “If it can be a surprise, make it one.”
Davis is grateful for his wife and those who hold things together back home. “Honestly, deployment is way harder on the family at home. Time goes slower,” he said. “When you're deployed, the tempo is fast-paced, and you try to keep yourself occupied.”
When he left the first time, his oldest son was less than a year old and did not know him when he returned. “We had to reconnect. He had to get to know who I was.” That memory concerned him when he approached the next big reunion. “You never know how everyone's going to react. You're always afraid they won't know you.”
He appreciates resources provided by the Army and encourages others returning to take seriously the training and guidance that help handle homecoming issues.
Georgette Price, military services manager for Bossier Parish schools in Louisiana and a military spouse, said surprises can be a great distraction when someone returns but that each person must plan what is right for their family. “It gives you, as the family member, this perfect moment to remember,” she said. However, it is also important not to gloss over issues that arise from the deployment cycle, including couples negotiating how things are done upon the return.
She encourages parents to talk the entire time the family member is away about what happens when he or she returns-and to ask children if they want to know or be surprised. “You're always preparing for that reunion,” she said.
Price and her husband, a retired Air Force major, surprised their children in the office at school when he returned from Afghanistan. “For us it was sweet,” she said. “They were very excited.”
The first time Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Nardini deployed, to Diego Garcia, he was single and did not have a big homecoming. But after he married and had his first child, he was sent to Afghanistan, and his homecoming became especially sweet. “I rounded the corner, and there was my daughter,” he said with a touch of awe in his voice.
Now with wife Kimberly and three children, ages 10, 5, and 2, Nardini finds that reunions after even shorter separations, like being away for temporary duty, are precious. “When I get off the plane, I'm running down,” he said. “You can wrap your arms around them. It's amazing how it feels.”
He believes videos of military reunions are useful in helping others understand what the separation is like. “For people in the military, we understand the hardships,” he said. “Seeing those videos, that emotion, lets them know that it's a big deal. It helps others understand what people are going through.”
As for Baskin's time at home with her brothers and sisters, she packed celebrations of birthdays and holidays into 10 days, then flew out to a new assignment in Cuba, not sure when she will be home again. Her brothers and sisters FaceTime and call her often.
For her, the military is a commitment to both country and family. “I see it as an opportunity to better myself and help my siblings,” she said. “If I go, I'm putting them in a better situation.”
Her advice to those considering a surprise reunion: “Do it. It's the best feeling in the world…It's worth it to see the smile on their faces.”