Hillsborough County, Florida - School started out normal enough today for the four boys in the Neal family: Conner, Collin, Kevin and Kirtland. Teachers did their thing and students played their roles.
But for each of the boys, "normal" was about to change. You see, Mom was orchestrating a mission she calls Operation Homecoming.
"We lied to the kids," says Corry Neal. "We told them Dad wouldn't be home until the 23rd of December."
And that's where Dad, Kelley Neal, comes in. A Senior Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, he's been on a ship cruising out of Japan for two years and he hasn't physically seen his boys for 14 months. He's missed a lot.
"Birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving and anything in between," says Kelley.
In his 19 years in the Navy, Kelley has taken journeys around the world, but perhaps none are as exciting as Thursday's walk down school halls. "This is going to be entertaining," he quips before walking into a classroom.
When he entered Kevin's Language Arts class at Williams Middle School, all the 8th grader could say was "Holy crap... holy crap! You weren't supposed to be here until December 23rd."
At Lee Elementary, the principal announced a special visitor and Connor, a 5th grader, grinned and said, "I know him," before getting his hair tousled by Dad.
And at East Bay High, Kirtland was in the media center. After his dad called out his name, Kirtland stood up and gave him a hug, and then had to sit down again, his head in his hands. "You got tall on me man," remarked Dad.
And finally at Eisenhower Middle, 12-year-old Collin was playing his baritone in the band when Dad's entrance cut the rehearsal short. And the first thing military-shorn Dad noticed-his son's spiked hair, "Nice Mohawk."
Kelley is now back with his growing boys. "That explains my grocery bills for the past two years," Kelley says with a chuckle. "I was wondering what they've been eating-apparently everything."
Kelley is now assigned to SOCOM at MacDill Air Force Base. Tampa should be his final stop; it's a successful end to Operation Homecoming.