Dad returns from Afghanistan to surprise his daughter at school (with video)

Dad returns from Afghanistan to surprise his daughter at school (with video)

October 20th, 2012 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Brooke Johnson hugs her dad, U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Sam Johnson, Friday afternoon at Bright School. Johnson has been stationed in Afghanistan and surprised his daughter at her school.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Sam Johnson is not the type to get nervous.

For the last seven months, he has seen some of the most harrowing scenes from fighting in southern Afghanistan: The Medivac missions to rescue soldiers injured by gunfire and bomb blasts. The emergency surgeries. The amputations.

He's learned to keep a steady head.

But on Friday morning, standing in the lobby of the Bright School, Johnson was nervous.

Wearing his fatigues and surrounded by cameras and reporters, Johnson, who attended Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, spoke about his time in Afghanistan and what he missed about his home in Chattanooga. But his eyes kept shifting to the left as lines of children passed through the hallway.

He was looking for Brooke.

His second-grade daughter was in first grade when Johnson left for the arid mountains of Afghanistan's Zabul Province, south of Kandahar. He showed her where he was going by pointing to it on a globe. He told her he was going there to help "take care of the good guys."

Before he left, they took the training wheels off her bike.

Then there was the long year apart. Brooke, who lives with her mother in Chattanooga, turned 7 and lost her fair share of teeth.

Some days, around 3 or 4 a.m. in Afghanistan, Johnson would video-chat with his daughter, who was getting ready for bed. At the beginning of his long, often-chaotic days, he would talk with her about stuffed animals and what she was learning in school.

When he finally returned to his base in Norfolk, Va., a few weeks ago, Johnson decided to surprise Brooke when he came down to see her.

"I wanted her to have a memory. We just haven't gotten to make many memories this past year," he said.

He arranged it with Brooke's principal and teachers and stayed vague in his conversations with Brooke.

"When are you coming home?" Brooke asked him in one chat a few days ago, thinking he was in Afghanistan.

"Soon," he said.

As he started to head south to Chattanooga, he thought about how much Brooke may have changed. She was just a toddler the first time her father was deployed to Iraq, and he saw how much she had grown after his eight months there. And he saw the big changes in his other son, 3-year-old Christian.

"They are two totally different people than they were when I left," he said.

As he waited in the Bright School lobby, his anticipation felt like Christmas morning. What would she do? What would he do?

When Brooke finally rounded the corner and saw her father, there was no pause. She gasped "Daddy!" and ran -- struggling to get her hands out of her coat pockets so she could wrap them around his neck. They held each other for a long moment as a grandfather clock in the lobby chimed. Then they looked at each other.

"Look at all those teeth you've lost!" he said as she smiled at him.

Downstairs in the school cafeteria, away from the cameras, the Johnsons let the reunion sink in. Johnson, who has learned to tolerate mess hall food and Meals Ready-to-Eat, happily stood in line for cafeteria fish sticks with Brooke.

They sat down across from a group of Brooke's second-grade friends, who stared wide-eyed at Johnson's uniform. One by one, Brooke told her father the names of her classmates -- none of whom were alive when the war in Afghanistan began.

"Were you fighting Osama bin Laden?" one boy asked. Johnson laughed.

He and Brooke spoke quietly about how school was that morning and what they wanted to do the week he has with her before he heads back up to Norfolk.

They planned to go get Florida Gators T-shirts for the game today and talked about going to play in the park.

"We're just going to get to hang out together," Johnson said. "We have a lot to catch up on."

For her part, Brooke shook her head when asked if the fatigues-clad figure in her school hallways seemed like a stranger at first glance.

"I knew it was him," she said. "Right away."