Bradenton school's event brings dad closer to home from Afghanistan

vmannix@bradenton.comJanuary 29, 2014 

BRADENTON

Tuesday morning started out melancholy for Peytan and Tillman Caskey as they left their Apollo Beach home.

Both attend Saint Stephen's Episcopal School, which was celebrating "Dads Make A Difference Day" with an assembly for the lower and intermediate school students and their fathers.

But the siblings' dad wouldn't be there.

Lt. Col. Brian Caskey is in Afghanistan, where the 44-year-old U.S. Marine jet pilot is winding up a six-month combat tour.

"He's gone a lot and they're used to it, but not long ones like this," said their mom, Jennifer, a fifth-grade teacher at Saint Stephen's. "So they were sad coming to school. But when Peytan got a little emotional I said, 'Peytan, I can be your dad.'

Peytan said, 'That's fine, but dads don't wear high heels.'

I said, 'Well, they can.' We got a little laugh out of that."

The mood brightened considerably after the assembly began in Hoagland Arena. Head of School Jan Pullen acknowledged one particular dad's ab

sence and introduced a video to the expectant audience.

There was Brian Caskey, talking to his family from his barricaded base in Helmand Province.

Peytan, 7, buried her face in her hands. "I was crying and surprised," the second-grader said later. "It was really sweet to show us our Daddy."

Tillman, 5, wore a look of shock, then broke into a big smile. "He looked cool," the pre-kindergartener said afterward.

Their mom, seated between them, beamed as tears filled her eyes.

Her husband Skype-recorded the video last week and Sam Lindsay, associate director of school technology, edited it.

"It was neat to see their faces," Jennifer Caskey said. "They were so surprised and I loved that part of it. It made their day."

Brian Caskey, dressed in combat fatigues, told his children he loved them, thinks about them every minute and can't wait to get home to take them boating, fishing and playing ball. He also told his wife he loved her, thanked her for bearing the burden of being "Mrs. Dad." He also expressed gratitude for the school's support.

"See everybody in a month," said Caskey, who's ordinarily stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

The three-minute video drew heartfelt applause.

It distinguished the Dad's Day event, which Pullen created more than 20 years ago.

"This one was so special -- and a nice surprise," said the administrator, now 26 years with Saint Stephen's.

"Very impressive, very touching," said Manuel Rodriguez, a Bradenton physician, with son, David. "It's a shame he wasn't able to be here, but we're lucky to have him over there. We so underappreciate the military."

Sam Lindsay can relate to that, so he did something extra for the Caskeys.

A U.S. Air Force veteran with a brother who has served five tours in Afghanistan, he took a video of the children to send to their dad.

"When you're away from home on deployment one of the things you crave is seeing your family," Lindsay said. "This is one of those surprise-from-the-heart, instantaneous reactions you can't see on Skype. It was pretty cool."

The Caskeys are counting the days until Dad comes home. The video brought him that much closer.

"The kids have tried to be strong and I've tried to be strong for them," Jennifer Caskey said. "They've had it harder than me and really miss their Dad. I wanted to do something special for them and so did he."

It was a hit, all right.

"He looks like a real Marine," Peytan said.

"He makes me proud," Tillman said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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