By Ashley Rader
It started as a typical school lunch for Harold McCormick Elementary fifth-grader McKinley Pritchard.
Talking with friends.
But then, Dad came home.
McKinley’s Thursday lunch included a major surprise when her father, Staff Sgt. Tyler Pritchard, visited the school after returning from a deployment with the U.S. Air Force.
Her mother, Jessica Pritchard, arranged for McKinley’s school surprise because the family has been separated from each other for most of the past year. The family’s youngest child, 5-year-old Christian, was surprised by his father earlier Thursday morning at home.
McKinley, 10, sat down to eat her lunch in the school cafeteria unaware that her father was waiting in the hallway to surprise her. She didn’t notice his approach until a school employee told her she needed to turn around.
As she looked up and saw her father coming across the cafeteria toward her, confusion, then shocked surprise registered on her face. She rushed from the table to greet him with a large hug and tears of joy.
“Did you guys know about this?” McKinley turned and asked her friends at the table.
School administration and some staff members knew about the reunion, but none of the students were told to make sure it stayed a secret.
“I had no idea he was here,” McKinley said. “I didn’t know. I turned around and he was there. I was so surprised.”
The family had been stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for the past three years until Tyler was deployed to Alaska last March for Operation Noble Eagle. Jessica and the two children stayed in Japan until Jan. 12, when they moved back to Elizabethton. The family was briefly reunited for three days in June and for a few hours in December, but have been mostly apart since Tyler was deployed.
“He is home for good now,” Jessica said.
Tyler returned to Carter County Wednesday night but had to stay hidden from his children. He also brought the family’s two dogs, Shiba Inus named Suki and Yukio, back with him.
He surprised Christian first thing Thursday morning by waking him up.
“He didn’t recognize me for a minute,” Tyler said. “He didn’t want to get out of bed, but the dogs woke him up. He looked at me and then just jumped out of bed and leaped into my arms.”
Christian said he was not expecting his father to be the one to wake him up.
“I didn’t know,” Christian said. “I was so excited.”
Jessica said it was hard to keep the homecoming a secret from the children. Her plans for a large family dinner Saturday raised McKinley’s suspicions.
“She said she thought Daddy was coming home early because we had the dinner planned and everyone would be there,” Jessica said. “She said a couple of times that she thought he would be coming home.”