Her father, 42-year-old Greg Hernandez, had just walked through the classroom door after being deployed in Afghanistan for nine months.
It was the solider’s third and final deployment.
“Are you ready to go?” Hernandez said to his daughter, who was still frozen in place.
“I’ve never seen you smile so big,” said Anna’s first-grade teacher, Lindsey Cole, as Hernandez made his way around the desks.
Anna looked on in happiness and shock. As far as Anna was concerned, her father wasn’t supposed to be home until Sunday.
“It’s OK to give your dad a hug,” Cole said.
The father and daughter embraced, reuniting for the third time. Hernandez first deployed for 15 months when Anna was less than a year old. He deployed again for a year in 2009.
Anna’s mom, Rebecca, learned he was coming home from his most recent deployment early Thursday and contacted the school to make the homecoming special.
“He was supposed to be home before the end of the year, but they had some problems with flights and he was delayed,” Rebecca Hernandez said. “It’s always worst-case scenario that they give you, but somehow they rushed these guys through.”
The Hernandez family moved to Lacey in 2009 after being stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Hernandez had always dreamed of becoming a soldier. He chose to join when he was 34, the last year he could enlist at the time.
“He had to do it now or not have the chance to enlist again,” Rebecca Hernandez said. “We left our life so he could become a private in the military … He honestly loved every minute of it, except it is really hard on the family.”
Hernandez enlisted after his eldest two children had already grown. The family now has a 15-year-old daughter, 6-year-old Anna and a 3-year-old son.
After his military career ends in April, the family, originally from Northern California, plans to stay in the Lacey area at least until after their eldest daughter is done with school.
For now, the main focus is having Dad home again.
“This time has definitely been the hardest on Anna because she is really old enough now to comprehend what is going on,” Rebecca Hernandez said.
The family kept in contact through Skype, but sometimes found it caused more pain than good.
“Some days it would make it better, but other days my kids would be really upset,” Rebecca Hernandez said. “We would have to weigh whether it was worth it that day to do it or not because they would be upset afterwards.”
Until Friday, Cole had two students in her classroom whose fathers were deployed overseas. The second girl’s father is expected to return home early this year.
“It’s an experience close to my heart,” Cole said. “My father served in the military and deployed multiple times when I was in elementary school.”
Her father was deployed in Korea when she was Anna’s age.
“These kids are strong, but the reintegration process can be challenging,” Cole said. “Our school does a really good job supporting these kids.”