Fresh off a one-year tour of duty to Kosovo, Sgt. Austin Martin reported back to duty Wednesday as a parent.
Surrounded by a massive circle of elementary school students, Martin surprised his daughter Maddy, a kindergarten student at Hillsville Elementary School. Martin, a Sgt. in the Army National Guard, got in the middle of the circle of students and dropped down to one knee as Maddie was brought outside to the playground by herself.
Before Maddy could enter the circle, the students yelled “Surprise” and “Welcome Home” as Martin stood up to meet his daughter for a hug 12 months in the making. There were no tears for the emotional moment, just lots of smiles, laughter and happiness as the two reunited for the first time in a year.
“This is awesome. Just to see her face, the happiness – it was pretty cool,” said Jake Beamer, Assistant Principal at Hillsville Elementary.
HES Principal Samantha Reed said Martin’s wife, Lindsay, has been doing an internship with the school’s guidance department this semester. She told school officials Martin would be coming home the night of March 22 and they wanted to surprise Maddy at school.
“Maddy’s class had been sending him letters from overseas and a care package, so they kind of adopted him,” Reed said, adding that Martin’s middle child, Maiya, is also a student at HES. “We felt like this would be the best way to welcome him back. We were honored to do it. Austin also went to school here, so a lot of the staff knew Austin.”
A five-year veteran of the Army National Guard, Sgt. Austin has been in Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission for the past 12 months. While many may not realize it, U.S. and other NATO allied forces have remained in Kosovo since the end of the conflict there in 1998 and 1999 between the former federal forces of Yugoslavia and the Ethnic Albanians of the region. Austin flew back into the U.S. in Greensboro, N.C. late March 22 after the family had put Maddy to bed so they could surprise her at school. Returning home has been almost a surreal experience, Austin said.
“It’s a shock to the system. It’s such a big change of pace going from there to here so quickly. It’s a hard sensation to describe,” he said. “But it was really nice to surprise her and to make a few memories. I am sure Maddy will remember this for a long time.”
One curious child had several questions for Martin on Wednesday at school.
“If there is a bad guy, do you have to wear camouflage and hide in the woods?” the child asked.
“That’s it,” Martin responded.
“I KNEW IT,” the child answered with glee before just as quickly returning to play with his classmates.
A member of the First and 150th Calvary out of Bluefield, West Virginia, Austin said the National Guard is set up for members to operate one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer so they can train in case a mission comes up. They are usually on a five-year rotation.
“This was just our time. I am back for now, hopefully for at least the next five years just doing the weekend a month and the two weeks in the summer,” Martin said.
Joi Ogle, Maddy’s kindergarten teacher, said the class adopted Austin. The kids have enjoyed keeping up with him and his deployment overseas.
“For Veterans Day we made cards and wrote letters thanking Austin for his service to our country. And the kids have had so much fun with it,” Ogle said. “During the month of February to go along with Presidents’ Day, we do a little red, white and blue unit about being an American and being Patriotic. It was so nice to tie Austin into that unit because it made it real for our kids.”
Martin recalled how the class made Christmas a little merrier for his unit as Ogle’s students made Christmas cards to give to the troops.
“It was a really big deal to everybody at Christmas,” Martin said. “It was nice to get something from back home. It was awesome.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN