Army Colonel surprises children at St. Bernadette School

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For the whole month of April, St. Bernadette School in Springfield has been pulling out all the stops to honor military children in their community. They have organized guest speakers, hosted parties featuring snow cones and even had a special performance by the U.S. Army K-9 team. However, what better way to celebrate the month of the military child than by helping pull off a surprise homecoming for two students.

Sixth-grader Abigail Torres and her brother, second-grader Johan, are all too familiar with the pain of separation that comes with military life. Their father, Lt. Col. José Orlando Torres, has been deployed with the Army to South Korea for the past year. Even though the family communicates with him through FaceTime and email, nothing can replace having him home.

The colonel started his military service 30 years ago with the Puerto Rico National Guard and received his regular Army commission in 1992. In addition to his numerous awards and honors, he is also a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus. He moved with his family to the Arlington Diocese four years ago and enrolled Abigail at St. Bernadette School. When he received new orders in 2015, he and his wife, Wendy, had to decide between moving the whole family to South Korea for two years or being separated for one year. Not wanting to uproot the children again, the family decided on the latter.

In the past, Torres has crafted many a surprise reunion. According to Wendy, the last one involved him wrapped up in a Christmas package this past December.

"I try to do this as many times as possible," said Torres. "In the military we are gone for long periods of time. It is scary sometimes."

Now, after 12 months apart and a 14-hour flight to America, Torres was finally home. Despite the jet lag, he was all smiles and could not wait to surprise his kids.

When the two siblings filed into the St. Bernadette gym with their classmates last Monday, they had no idea their father was hiding behind the stage curtain.

As he listened to the students sing "God Bless America," Torres knew his daughter, Abigail, was singing with the school's Cardinal Choir. Abigail had been very disappointed after finding out her dad would not be home in time for her 12th birthday April 24.

After the song came to an end, Assistant Principal Beth Monroe brought Abigail and Johan up to the podium to thank them on behalf of the school for their sacrifice. Then, the stage curtain drew back to reveal Torres smiling from ear-to-ear.

Abigail and Johan sprinted up the steps to reach their dad who gathered them in a big bear hug.

While this moment could be added to the many precious surprises their father has arranged in the past, this one was different. Abigail and Johan knew that not only was their dad back from deployment, but he was back for good.

"I just thought, 'Oh good we are done,'" said Abigail. "We don't have to do this any more."

Torres is retiring after 30 years in military service and is looking forward to spending more time close to home with his family.

"I just want to thank everyone," said Torres. "Everyone has been so helpful to my family and my kids while I have been away. That means a lot to us."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016