Before Air National Guard Master Sgt. James Miller left for Bagram, Afghanistan in August, he had a camouflage backpack made for his son Ethan identical to his, complete with “MILLER” stitched on the back.
It was a way for a father and son to stay connected during what was supposed to be six months away from each other.
But James Miller arrived home three months early on Monday and gave Ethan a holiday surprise he’ll never forget in his fifth-grade class at South Douglas Elementary School.
The two hugged for what seemed like forever and there weren’t many dry eyes at South Douglas after the homecoming. Ethan was visibly choked up as his dad walked in the door and held him.
“When I saw him, I’m just like, ‘oh my god,’ ” said Ethan Miller.
“You looked pretty stunned,” James Miller told his son.
The two were supposed to Skype on Monday night. James Miller said he talked to Ethan over the weekend and confirmed their plans, keeping Monday’s surprise under wraps.
“Him and I were going to screen share tonight and he was going to show me Minecraft,” said James Miller. “So now he doesn’t have to worry about that.”
Ethan’s mom Amber Miller was in on the big surprise. She said when she first found out, she didn’t want to say anything in case there was a change in plans, something she said sometimes happens in the military.
James said he was stationed in Iraq when Ethan was in second grade and was away from home Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The family was prepared to go through the same thing again this year.
“Christmas morning I had scheduled it so my shift would end the same time he was getting up,” James Miller said. “So we had planned on Skyping Christmas morning.”
James and Amber Miller found out they’d have their entire family together for Christmas about three weeks ago.
James was one of about 500 soldiers guarding the perimeter of a U.S. military base of about 36,000. But James said they started closing all of the forward operating bases outside of Bagram and when they did that, there were too many people on the base.
So the military started picking what they call “line numbers” and his number got picked.
Miller left Afghanistan on Dec. 3 and finally made it back into Atlanta about 8:30 Monday morning.
He got to South Douglas just after noon after waiting about 2 1/2 hours for his luggage, which got put on the wrong airplane.
As James and Amber and James’ brother Roger walked to the classroom where Ethan was, they talked about how great the holidays would be.
After the big surprise that made Ethan’s day, James put Ethan’s backpack over his shoulders and the two walked out of the classroom with smiles on their faces.
South Douglas Elementary Principal Casey Duffey said it’s sometimes difficult for children to understand how hard it can be for classmates who have a parent away from home while serving in the military.
But with Ethan coming to school with a backpack just like his dad’s everyday, it was clear to the 10-year-old that some got it.
“I mean all my friends wanted him to come back,” said Ethan Miller.