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A hero’s welcome

EAST MANATEE — After a tour of duty in Qatar in the Middle East, U.S. Air Force Capt. Thomas Albrecht came home to a hero’s welcome both at home and at his sons’ school.

Albrecht was embraced by his ecstatic sons, Cory, 9, Evan, 6 and Nathan 2 and his wife, Tia, when he arrived home a few days ago.

The lovefest continued at Braden River Elementary School Tuesday where the student body, including Cory and Evan, celebrated “A Father’s Welcome Home.”

The students have adopted Albrecht and Capt. Bradley Denisar, who is the son of Braden River Elementary kindergarten teacher Diana Denisar, as part of their family.

Around Halloween, they gathered 900 pounds of candy to send to troops serving with Albrecht and Denisar, who is stationed in Afghanistan.

In one of the day’s most tender moments, Albrecht hugged his boys under the covered outdoor pavilion before 540 flag-waving students.

He smiled when he hugged Cory, who was sporting a brand-new crewcut.

“Blame dad for that one,” Albrecht quipped.

Albrecht has been through tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, but he said, “I almost lost it” when he saw the patriotic welcome home he received.

“To feel the support of a school that is so patriotic really got to me,” Albrecht said, in describing a moment when his voice cracked and tears flowed.

Albrecht said he plans to return to Qatar in February.

“I worry about my wife and kids, but my wife is strong,” Albrecht said. “This is my job.”

The tall and slender Albrecht started the program in dramatic fashion by parading through the school’s breezeway, shaking hands with students who were cheering and waving American flags.

“It was very inspiring to see youth so excited about honoring a vet,” said veteran Duane Smith. Smith spent 27 years in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Once the parade reached the school’s outdoor pavilion, Duane Smith’s daughter, Shannon Smith, sang a stirring national anthem joined by Ashlyn Chiusano, Sarah Dill, Emily Roman and Megan Affolter.

During the national anthem, the students saw Albrecht salute the American Flag.

Carol Rothenberger, the school’s student council president, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ed Cleveland, a U.S. Air Force veteran who lives in West Bradenton and is the retired chief of West Manatee Fire Rescue, presented Albrecht with a Grateful American Coin.

The first Grateful American Coin was created by a Tampa woman for her sons to present to military personnel as a sign of respect, but the coins have now gained much wider popularity, Cleveland said.

Levi Waxler and fellow student council members presented Albrecht with handmade thank you cards to be taken back to his troops.

Albrecht, whose job in the Air Force is to coordinate food, fuel and firepower, surprised the school family by presenting Cory’s fourth grade teacher, Sue Curry and Evan’s first grade teacher, Dehlia Garrity, a flag that flew over Afghanistan aboard a B-1 aircraft on Oct. 30, 2009.

Garrity wept.

“That flag honors all of our staff and teachers,” said senior secretary Lisa Camuto.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.