GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) - The Veterans Day ceremony at Ford Elementary in Georgetown is tradition. Students pack into the auditorium to sing patriotic songs, and recognize and thank each past and present member of the Armed Forces in attendance.
This year, the kids were in for a treat. A surprise guest, Lt. Col. Kurt Wadzinski, was hiding behind the curtain. The decorated soldier has served in the Army 21 years and been on four tours of duty overseas -- one to Kuwait and three to Iraq.
He returned from Baghdad this week, but only his wife, Shannon, had seen him. Five of the soldier's children were seated in the large crowd.
"The interesting thing about always coming back is how the kids are going to react," said Wadzinksi as he waited patiently.
The school principal stood up to announce his arrival. "This soldier has served four tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, and has been in the service for 21 years."
Then, she called the Wadzinski children up as a screen was raised, and their dad stood center stage.
"Hi Ben, how are you?" asked Wadzinski of his third grade son after greeting him with a big hug.
Laura, 6, and Kelly, 5, hung on, too, as their mom walked up with Ryan, 2, and their 6-month-old daughter Tracy. The crew continued clinging on to their dad out in the hallway.
"We're very, very proud of him and we're thankful for the sacrifices he's made to be away from these guys because it's been hard on us both," said Shannon. "We work as a team with all these guys and I need my teammate, and it's been extremely hard to pull both roles."
The kids cannot wait to get home and play their favorite game with dad -- tickle monster.
"It's a game where my dad is it, and whoever he grabs he tries to tickle," explained Ben with enthusiasm.
But the reunion was not over. The soldier still had the oldest daughter, Jamie, to surprise. The seventh grader was playing clarinet in the Veterans Day ceremony at Benold Middle School.
She had no clue her dad was in the building, until a social studies teacher stepped up to the microphone.
"The children were not told their dad would be back in the U.S. Thursday morning so this is a pretty big surprise," said a social studies teacher.
The 12-year-old's face lit up with a smile, and she scanned the room right before he walked out. The crowd was on their feet clapping and cheering as Jamie spotted him.
"Hey Jamie, hey love," said her father as the two shared a huge hug.
The entire family of eight was together again and thankful for the special moment they could share on this military holiday, Veterans Day.
"The soldiers, when they go overseas, it is a big deal and it is important to them to know the support of the community is there," said Wadzinski to the audience. "It is an amazing and great blessing to know that everybody takes the time out and recognizes those sacrifices, especially for the families. thank you."
The moment was also a learning experience for the rest of the school who was able to witness the public homecoming.
"It makes them think, 'Oh, it really is real people going over there to give their lives,'" said Jamie.
After the ceremonies and surprises, the Wadzinskis returned home to adjust to life as a family of eight once again.
"Just the chance to be a big kid again and play with them is a lot of fun," said Kurt, at home in his backyard, shortly after two of his daughters, ages 5 and 6, needed his help getting out of a climbing tree in their backyard.
"It's just- pure happiness, I am so happy and to see them play," said Shannon. "It's just marvelous- because they've missed it for a year."
On their first afternoon back at home, the Wadzinskis climbed trees, played on the swingset, and spent hours playing their favorite game of "tickle monster."
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