MANATEE -- When siblings Serenity and Antonio Andrews gathered with their classmates Friday morning for Ballard Elementary's monthly flagpole ceremony -- a tradition started in September 2001 -- they were prepared to recite the pledge of allegiance. But when they saw the special guest arrive in full uniform, they couldn't contain themselves and went running straight into her arms.
Rochelle Andrews' eyes glistened as she stepped in front of the crowd of students. By the time she embraced her two children, the tears were flowing.
It was the first time Andrews has seen her children in five months. She has been serving in San Diego, Calif., on the USS Essex with the U.S. Navy as an air traffic controller.
"Five months is a long time," Andrews said.
Serenity could not take her
eyes off her mom as she held tightly to her hand.
"I missed how every night she sleeps with me," Serenity said.
Andrews arrived in Bradenton late Thursday night so she could surprise her children Friday morning.
Andrews has been counting down the days until she could be reunited with her children, who are in the first and third grades.
She said the separation can be harder on the parent.
"I'm nervous, because time is stopped at the moment I leave," Andrews said. "Then when I get back to them, they are completely different kids most of the time."
Andrews previously finished a tour in Cuba, and she will be serving in San Diego for another year.
Andrews said that every time she comes home, she makes it a surprise for the kids. Serenity and Antonio stay with their grandmother when Andrews is away on duty.
"I try to come back in a big way every time," Andrews said.
Wendy Mungillo, principal of Ballard Elementary, says it was fairly easy to set up the surprise on the school's end because of the regularly scheduled flag ceremony.
"It is a good time to get everyone together and have the whole school join in," the principal said.
Andrews, who will be in Bradenton with her family through Dec. 4, said she is looking forward to taking her children to Busch Gardens and just being lazy around the house together.
She also offered a word of encouragement to her fellow service men and women.
"Do whatever it takes to keep in touch," Andrews said.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.