VILONIA — Dressed in his Air Force uniform, Master Sgt. Sergeant Russell Sargent on Friday hoisted a smiling, speechless bundle of emotions — his daughter Chelsea, a third-grader at Vilonia Elementary School — into his arms for the first time in eight months. 

Sargent arrived in Arkansas following a deployment in Iraq. His trip home, he said, began Monday and took five days before he arrived in Vilonia.

His wife, Lisa, and daughter, Sara, an 11th-grader at VHS, knew he was on his way. But, Chelsea was kept in the dark pending a delay. 

"We didn’t want to tell her and run the risk of a disappointment for her," Lisa Sargent said. "He left in March and he wasn’t supposed to be home until April."

Arriving at the school at about 2:30 p.m., the family hid in a nearby classroom waiting for Chelsea’s last recess of the day to end. As students filed into their room, teacher Terri Varner assured them they were going to like the surprise she had in store for them. A half a dozen or so other teachers were also on hand. 

Chelsea didn’t appear to notice at first that her dad was in the room until Varner asked her to introduce her guest. She hugged and held her dad tightly but offered few words. In the background, her peers clapped and cheered. 

Knowing about the surprise for about a week, Varner said she was thrilled her class was able to be a part of the homecoming. She recalls her brother’s return home following a deployment in Vietnam. She was in the third grade when he left, she recalled, and the fourth when he returned. 

"I will never forget how excited I was then," she added.