Six-year-old Angelica Gomez looked up to see her father, Staff Sergeant Edwin Gomez, standing at the entrance of her kindergarten classroom. “I told ya,” she offered as an aside to her classmates as she rushed across the room and into her father’s arms.
That moment, which took place on Friday morning at the Tuckahoe School, was the first time Angelica saw her father in more than a year. He had just returned from a deployment in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard and was still in uniform.
The reunion was a surprise for Angelica, who knew her father would be home this month but not exactly when. Her mother, Irene Gomez, did not tell Angelica that her father would arrive at the school, so the classmates she had been telling about her father and what he does could witness his homecoming too.
The surprise was in the works for more than a month, ever since Angelica’s kindergarten teacher, Ann Miller, asked her why she was upset one day. Angelica explained that she missed her father. “My daddy’s in Afghanistan,” she said. “He’s a hero.”
Sgt. Gomez was originally going to return home before Christmas, but the date was pushed back to just after New Year’s Day. Then it was pushed back again and again. And again.
He finally left Afghanistan on January 8 but still had a long journey ahead of him that was fraught with delays. From Afghanistan, he flew to Germany, where he was supposed to have only a brief stay while the pilots slept. But after departing Germany, the C-5 Galaxy transport he was on blew an engine and a hydraulic unit. “We were over Ireland when we lost the engine, so they turned us around and headed us back to Germany,” he said. It took six days of repairs before the aircraft was able to depart again.
When Mr. Gomez thought he would be home earlier, he had promised Angelica he would be home by her birthday, on January 14, Ms. Gomez said. When it became clear he would likely not be home in time, Ms. Gomez promised her daughter two birthday celebrations—one on the 14th, and another once her father was home.
In the weeks leading up to Angelica’s birthday, Ms. Gomez asked her daughter what kind of a present she’d like.
“I want Daddy to come home,” Angelica would say. “That’s the only thing I want.”
Angelica frequently asked when her father was returning, Ms. Gomez said. “Sometimes it’s difficult for me to give the right answer.”
Once the C-5 Galaxy finally touched down at Fort Drum, an Army base in upstate New York, Sgt. Gomez still had a wait ahead of him. Fort Drum was winding down before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, and he could not start his required paperwork and medical check until January 20. But Ms. Gomez said she could breathe a sigh of relief once she knew he had made it that far, even if she had to wait a bit longer to see him.
Sgt. Gomez left Fort Drum on Thursday but did not go straight home. Instead, family friend John Distefano picked him up from the train station and stowed him away overnight to keep his arrival a surprise for Angelica and his younger daughter, 3-year-old Marilyn.
Sgt. Gomez’s deployment was his first overseas with the National Guard during a career as a full-time Guard reservist. When he first joined the Guard nearly 24 years ago, he never expected his unit to be activated, he said. But the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed that, he said. Sgt. Gomez was nearly deployed once before, but was allowed to stay behind because Angelica was just born.
Because of the nature of Mr. Gomez’s career, he and his family have moved every few years. Just three years ago, they were living in Edison, New Jersey. Mr. Gomez was transferred to the Bay Shore armory in 2006, and for several months took trains between New Jersey and Long Island five days a week to commute to work. Eventually, he had enough, and relocated his family, including his mother, Elizabeth Jakob, to Shirley. But their new home was in a dangerous area. “The neighborhood wasn’t the best, if you know what I mean,” Mr. Gomez said.
Twice, while Mr. Gomez wasn’t home and Ms. Gomez was, someone tried to break into their home.
Mr. Distefano said he moved the Gomezes into one of his rental homes in Tuckahoe at a discounted rate and put their extra things into storage for free because, as a veteran himself, he felt compelled to help. “The man had to be able to go to Afghanistan with the peace of mind that his family was being taken care of …” he said. “I just couldn’t see them living where they were living, and him being there. It just didn’t make any sense.”
Mr. Distefano came to know the Gomezes because his wife, Irene Distefano, is originally from Indonesia as is Ms. Gomez. Ms. Distefano and Ms. Gomez found each other on the internet once the Gomezes moves to Long Island.
Sgt. Gomez, who was born in New York City, and Ms. Gomez met in 2002, a year after Ms. Gomez immigrated to the United States.
The Distefanos also watched over Ms. Jakob while Ms. Gomez took her daughters to Indonesia to visit family for five months while their father was away.
“You can’t do enough for active duty personnel or veterans,” Mr. Distefano said. “I mean, the description of a veteran, whether retired, active duty or reserve, is a person who, at one point of their life, writes a blank check to the United States of America up to and including their lives.”
Mr. Distefano was in the Navy, his father was a Marine, and his grandfather was in the cavalry.
Mr. Gomez is now retiring from the National Guard after 24 years, the last 12 years as a supply sergeant. “I had to maintain accountability of all the unit’s equipment,” he explained. “In other words, if I assigned you a rifle, I had to make sure you still had that rifle, and that went for anything else that was on the property list.”
In Afghanistan, he was in charge of $7 million worth of supplies and equipment.
He explained his job and what it was like to live in Afghanistan for a year to Angelica’s kindergarten classmates, who thanked him for his service and showed him that they can recite the Pledge of Allegiance. With Angelica and Marilyn sitting on his lap—for the first time in a year—Mr. Gomez took the students’ questions and promised to come back to the Tuckahoe School again with photos of his time abroad.