Josh Blaney’s hands shook so wildly as he stood waiting in the hallway that it caught the attention of a few nearby teachers.
In the past year, the senior airman in the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108th Wing, had said goodbye to his wife Rachel, his five-year-old Aliyah, and his then-one-year-old Josh Jr. He stepped away from his job at PSE&G, left his Hamilton home and his young family, and began a six-month security detail deployment on an Air Force base in Kuwait.
Even when considering the difficult goodbyes Blaney had to endure last July, it was this hello that was giving him anxiety in the hallway of Morgan Elementary School on Jan. 30. Orchestrated by Blaney, Rachel, Aliyah’s kindergarten teacher Deborah Gigliotti and Morgan principal Michael Giambelluca, this surprise visit would be the first time he saw his daughter since June.
“I was beyond words—there’s not a rank for it,” Blaney said. “I was standing outside the door, my hands were shaking from how nervous I was to see her. I just wanted to see my kids.”
On the other side of the door, Rachel read to Aliyah’s class and another kindergarten class in the auditorium “Hero Dad” by Melinda Harden, a children’s book the compares fathers in the military to superheroes.
At the moment when she read a line about fathers having to go away for awhile, her voice began to break and tears welled in her eyes. Giambelluca called out, “Aliyah, look who’s here!” The door opened, and Blaney walked into the room.
For as ready as Blaney was to see Aliyah, this surprise was something she had earned. Blaney’s leave had a significant effect on her for a while, and her parents found themselves fielding questions and thoughts they insist no one could prepare for during a deployment. On daily FaceTime calls, she would tell Blaney she didn’t think he was coming home, and that they weren’t a family until he actually did.
Aliyah brought in gifts she received from Blaney for her class “show and tell,” and would talk about what he was doing overseas. On one occasion, Rachel found her sleeping with one of Blaney’s old ACU tops in her bed—her dad’s clothes comforted her when she missed him.
“There were just little things that showed how she was dealing,” Blaney said. “There’s just no way to prepare for it. You just have to deal with it as it happens.”
And it was little things that Blaney did in return to ease over the six months lost with his family. He worked 12-hour day shifts on his base, guarding flight lines and overseeing the perimeter, among other tasks. Because Kuwait is eight hours ahead of the U.S. east coast, his day would be ending just as Aliyah would get home from school. At most, he could afford only an hour each day to talk with her.
At one point, when daylight savings ended in the U.S., Blaney realized that hour was lost—Kuwait doesn’t practice such time changes. For the second half of his deployment, he was reserved to only talking with his family every other day. Still, he took advantage of that time. On Christmas Eve, he donned a Santa costume he had ordered online and FaceTime chatted with his children. Santa reassured them he was with their dad in Kuwait, that they had been good children that year, and that he would see them soon.
At another point, Aliyah—a big fan of Toy Story—shipped out some of her own toys to keep Blaney company. One small plastic otter named Ottie sat in Blaney’s pocket as he patrolled the base every day.
Blaney had been deployed just once before, one month after his wedding in 2011. Even then was a favorable situation to what he went through last year. He watched Josh Jr. begin to speak fuller sentences through a screen, and he had to continuously assure Aliyah over the phone that he would come home soon. He missed his son’s birthday and the family’s annual vacation to Ocean Isle, North Carolina. He celebrated the first day of school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year with them via FaceTime.
His surprise return was just as much a chance to make up for missed moments. He contacted Gigliotti about three weeks prior, and together they planned out the surprise. She planned out decorations and ordered food for the event—chocolate was specifically requested by Blaney, as he found it melted too frequently in the Kuwait sun for him to enjoy. Giambelluca planned it as a bigger event, inviting the superintendent, board members, the school district photographer and local press.
Blaney had actually returned home a full day before the surprise—it was planned that way in case his flight home was delayed. He spent the day with Rachel, then visited his mother and best friend once his kids got home from school. By the time he got to the school the next day, his nerves were overwhelming.
“On a 1 to 10, I was a 15,” he said. “I was just so happy to see her, but it was so many nerves.”
Still, Giambelluca called him in, the door opened, and he walked in straight to Aliyah, arms wide open. She leapt from her seat and ran into his hug. Aliyah told him she loves him. After a beat, he asked her if she missed him. “Yeah, I did,” she replied. Blaney wiped away tears.
Josh Jr. got his own surprise later that day. Blaney hid in a tall box in his daycare classroom, and opened the flaps when his son knocked on it. For a child that young, it took him a minute to understand—he had last seen Blaney with a shaved head haircut, and now he stood in front of him with a full head of hair. But his shock faded when the voice he heard was undeniably his dad’s.
“It wasn’t as much a shot in the heart, but it was a weird thing to describe—seeing your kid for 2 years, and when you come home, there’s no reaction,” Blaney said. “I think the voice is what struck him. Now he’s always walking around, talking like, ‘My daddy, that’s my daddy.’ It’s back to normal.”
What Blaney would want to be normal when he got home certainly has been. He’s resuming his job at PSE&G as if he had never been gone. His National Guard orders end in early March. Aliyah—save for when she had mistaken Blaney’s visit to his regional base as a sign that he was leaving again—has been happy since she got her dad back. And the family is already planning its annual Ocean Isle vacation.
Of course, there’s a few more surprises left in store for the kids. Blaney and Rachel are planning a Disney trip around Aliyah’s birthday in May, fulfilling a dream she shared continuously on her countless FaceTime chats with her dad. And if they came home to a new puppy a week later? Neither kid—nor Blaney—would likely object to that.
All of these surprises just return to Blaney’s promise to Aliyah that he would come home, and they would have time together again.
“We’re just trying to plan out this year, so we can make up for all that time we had missed,” Blaney said.