Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Roberts hadn’t slept much, and his flight home from his 15-month deployment in Turkey was delayed.
But after he arrived at the St. Louis airport on Wednesday morning, he quickly traveled to his 12-year-old daughter’s school in Belleville. She wasn’t expecting him home until the weekend, and Roberts said she knew not to get her hopes up because that could change.
He made a second trip shortly after: to his 7-year-old daughter’s school less than two miles away.
Roberts had been planning the surprise visits for at least a month.
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“I knew that they would be so overwhelmed that it would just capture the moment,” he said.
The girls’ mom, Ashley Winchester, said Roberts started texting her and his wife Jessica as soon as he found out when he’d be coming home.
“It’s been killing us not to tell them,” Winchester said before his visit.
Principals Matt Graham and Dave Deets at the girls’ schools, Emge Junior High and Ellis Elementary in the Harmony-Emge 175 school district, were in on it, too.
Roberts arrived at the Belleville junior high school just before his daughter Alyssa, a seventh-grader there, was headed to lunch. He hid with staff in the kitchen. Alyssa didn’t see him until she was near the front of the line, and even then she says she didn’t recognize him right away.
“I just saw the uniform, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s weird,’” Alyssa said. “And then I saw his name, and I knew it was him, so I freaked out.”
Her classmates in the cafeteria cheered and clapped when they realized what was happening. Some of Alyssa’s friends were even crying with her, and they surrounded her in a group hug — but not before she had a chance to hug her dad.
“I’ve been talking about him forever. He’s been gone. They’ve been very supportive, so when they saw how much it meant to me to see him, they got emotional, too, because they knew how it felt,” Alyssa said of her friends.
Michael Roberts hadn’t seen his daughter in person since he came home for a month back in August.
“She’s grown a foot since I last saw her,” he said. “... She’s a beanpole. That’s her nickname. It used to be short stuff, but she started shooting up.”
My heart feels like it’s hopping around really high.
Madison Roberts, 7, on her dad’s surprise homecoming
His youngest daughter, Madison, got her surprise visit in her second-grade classroom. Her teacher, Katie Thies, announced that they were going to have a special visitor.
“I have a surprise for you,” Thies said to her students. “... I thought, ‘How cool would it be to get a real-life superhero to come and talk to our class?’”
That was Michael Roberts’ cue to come through the door of an adjoining classroom. Madison was sitting nearby.
“Hi sweetie,” he said. “... Did you miss me?”
Madison said she’s watched another girl get surprised by her dad coming home from his deployment in a video on YouTube. Now, she knows how the girl in the video felt.
“My heart feels like it’s hopping around really high, and it’s really exciting to me,” Madison said. She did some jumping, too.
Since Alyssa was surprised first, Madison asked: “Aly, did your makeup smear?”
“Yes!” Alyssa responded.
Before his visit Wednesday, the girls spoke to their dad most weekends through FaceTime, an app for making audio and video calls. But Jessica Roberts said there was a time during his deployment when the family couldn’t reach him.
He was stationed in Turkey during the coup attempt in mid-July last year. He said the military base’s water and power was shut off and that it had to fly fuel in from other bases.
Soon, he’ll begin working at Scott Air Force Base with the 39th Logistics Readiness Squadron, which he was part of in Turkey, too.
The 36-year-old said he’s looking forward to spending time with his family, which will include helping Madison as she starts playing T-ball. He missed some of Jessica Roberts’ pregnancy while he was deployed. But she said the baby is due June 1 — “just in time” for her husband to be there.