Capt. Dustin Gabbert is finally home from deployment with the Oklahoma National Guard after being away from his wife Mary and his daughters Joanna and Lily for almost 13 months. He spent 10 months in Kuwait and several more months in the U.S. preparing to ship out or quarantining upon his return stateside.

When you’re in second grade like Joanna, a year is a long time. When you’re only 4 years old like Lily, it’s a full quarter of your life.

So both girls were thrilled to see their father Monday when he surprised Joanna as her school day was ending.

They knew he was coming home and had both been preparing by decorating the house with signs and pictures, but didn’t know exactly when they would finally see him.

Administrator Stacie White helped with the surprise by asking students gathered for the end-of-day assembly at Stillwater Christian School to pray with Joanna in thanks for her father’s return.

As she stood with her head bowed, her father sneaked to the front of the room and enfolded her in a hug.

Mary says the deployment was hard – taking care of two children while your spouse is more than 7,000 miles away is never easy – but having a community to provide support, whether it was emotional or something as practical as yard work, made a big difference.

Technology has improved the family’s communication with each deployment, she said. This time they were able to call or message almost daily and could sometimes video chat if there was enough bandwidth.

But it’s not the same as being there in person.

“They’re taller, bigger, Joanna has lost a couple of teeth … but they’re still my little girls,” Dustin said.

Lily didn’t just grow 3 inches, she has newfound fascinations with worms and cheetahs.

“Watch how fast I can run!” she said, demonstrating her cheetah-like speed as the family walked down the hallway.

After needing a few minutes to process having their dad right in front of them, the girls warmed up quickly, resting in his arms with their heads on his shoulders, playfully ripping the velcro patches off his uniform and stealing his ear plugs.

Dustin will be going to a retreat for returning soldiers soon, part of his re-entry program, but the family is looking forward to just being home together and getting back to their regular life.

“This is the end of something really hard,” Mary said. “Good, but hard.”

Twitter: @mcharlesNP

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