Monday was unlike any other for two young brothers in suburban Deerfield as they were reunited with their dad in a tearful embrace after a year apart.
“I was thinking happiness in my brain,” said first grader Kevin Munzing.
James Munzing, a sergeant in the Illinois National Guard, was deployed in Dijbouti, a country in eastern Africa, for the past year.
“Words can’t describe the happiness. I’m finally here,” the father said.
Get Chicago local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Chicago newsletters.
His sons, Kevin and Shawn, are in first and fourth grade, respectively, at Walden Elementary School in Deerfield. Their mom helped plan the surprise along with their teachers.
“We were more than excited to join in on this,” said Jody Oshira, who teaches Shawn’s fourth grade class. “I’m so happy. I’ve seen these sorts of things before. Something I definitely won’t forget.”
The family’s separation was made more difficult by the pandemic. Mom, Jessica Munzing, had to adjust to a new normal – life without their dad and also teaching the boys at home, remotely.
“It was really hard for all of us to adjust and find a new routine,” said Jessica Munzing. “It’s been really, really rough. Luckily now we have technology.”
The family stayed connected via frequent messages and video calls. James even participated in parent-teacher conferences remotely from Africa.
The boys thought their dad wouldn’t be home for another few weeks. Instead, they were pulled out of class, under the impression their mom was picking them up. But it was dad waiting at their usual meeting spot, with their classmates waving flags and watching nearby.
Now, the family plans to relax and spend time together.
“We’re going to have fun together and do more memories,” said Shawn Munzing. “Build Legos, play Smash Bros, play with my whole family, going to places.”
Pizza will be their first meal together followed by dad’s special chili.
“The boys will not eat any other chili unless it’s his,” said Jessica Munzing.