CUMBERLAND — Addison and Tristan Whetzel filed into the West Side Elementary School cafeteria on Friday afternoon prepared to share what it’s like to have a parent serving in the U.S. armed forces. What they weren’t prepared for was his arrival.
“I just was like, ‘What?!’” said Tristan, a fourth-grader at West Side. “I thought it was a dream for a second.”
For more than two years, Army Specialist Eric Whetzel has served in the 173rd Infantry Brigade airborne combat team in Vicenza, Italy.
Before Friday, it had been seven months since Eric had hugged his children.
“It was well needed,” Eric said about the reunion. “I miss them both a lot.”
Students were told that the day’s assembly would include a panel of fellow students, parents and teachers sharing stories about loved ones serving in the military. They were also told the expect a special guest — a real Army recruiter. Little did Tristan and Addison know their father was the true special guest.
Once the panel had shared their stories, school counselor Andrew Ferguson, who hosted the assembly, instructed the audience to face the entrance for the special guest’s arrival. Before Eric could get through the door, his daughter yelled “Daddy!” and ran straight into the soldier’s arms.
“I was like, ‘No way!’” said Addison, a third-grader. “This is crazy!”
Eyes filled with tears and cellphones recording the event lined the cafeteria as the students took to their feet to cheer the reunion.
“It gives me chills,” said Principal Molly Stewart.
Physical education teacher Chad Myers said Addison’s reaction to her father’s arrival was “priceless.”
“I have a daughter,” said Myers. “She is only 18 months, but seeing (Addison) when she first saw him and saying ‘Daddy,’ that was awesome. I loved it — it was priceless.’
It wasn’t long until Tristan was the next one in Daddy’s arms. He didn’t seem to mind that the school had kept the encounter a secret.
“That was a great surprise,” said Tristan. “That was the best surprise of my life.”
Family, as well as school officials, had a couple of weeks to plan the heartfelt homecoming.
“I think it’s awesome for us to be able to celebrate one of our West Side family members for their military service,” said Stewart.
Tristan and Addison’s mom, Nicole Whetzel, was overwhelmed by the day.
“I am overwhelmed with joy for my kids. This shows that co-parenting can exist when you put the children’s needs ahead of yours,” she said. “My children’s reaction instantly had me in tears, knowing they were in the arms of the man they love most. It’s was such a blessing.”
Eric’s mom, Laura Whetzel, said with a six-hour time difference between Italy and the U.S., it can be challenging to keep up communication between her son and grandchildren.
“When they are eating dinner, he’s sound asleep,” said Nicole. “It’s hard.”
Relieved to be back in the U.S., Eric will be stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, next month.
The first thing Eric has planned during his visit is to attend Tristan’s and Addison’s basketball game.
“He’s going to go to our first basketball game tomorrow,” said Tristan.
“We won last night,” said Addison, “We are 3-0.”