Gabriella Rivera’s eyes lit up, her smile spread wider, and then the 8-year-old clutched her father in a huge, months-in-the-making hug.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Orlando Rivera surprised his daughter; sons, Jayden, 6, and Landon, 5, and other family members Friday with an unexpected homecoming after serving overseas.
After the initial shock, Gabriella offered a simple reaction: “I was really happy,” she said.
Sergeant Rivera, 30, of Toledo planned the big moment with help from his sister and Westfield Franklin Park mall. They concocted an excuse to bring his unsuspecting family together, claiming Gabriella received an award to recognize her frequent and loving letters writing to her father.
Relatives took seats near a small stage in the mall’s food court. But as the ceremony began, Sergeant Rivera emerged to the delight of his children. Hugs, applause, and much picture-taking ensued.
“My heart is pumping really hard,” said the Marine’s mother, Linda Torres of Waterville.
The family knew he was done with his assignment, but didn’t expect him to return until mid-April. His assignment began June 1 and included training in Virginia Beach, Va. He returned home for a week in September and then departed for overseas duty at sites including Italy and Africa.
He joined the Marines in 2006 and has re-enlisted for another three years. He’s a member of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines based in Perrysburg Township.
His sister Christina Rodriguez planned the surprise and said she was the only person who knew he was coming home early. She said he wanted to make something special out of the homecoming occasion for his children.
“He actually has been really homesick. He’s been missing them like crazy,” Ms. Rodriguez said.
The family stayed in touch through technology.
When one of the boys learned to swim, she recorded video so he could see it too. His girlfriend, Ana Guzman of Toledo, used iPhones while he was away to communicate, but there’s no substitute for seeing him in person.
“I was just stunned speechless. I was like, ‘Is this real?’ ” she said. “I felt like it was more like a dream.”
Sergeant Rivera considered masquerading in an Easter Bunny costume for the reunion just before the holiday. But the occasion was happy enough without the floppy-eared attire, which he worried would be too warm.
“I missed holidays..., all the good holidays, I think. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s,” he said.
While he was gone, Gabriella, a third grader at Vermilion Elementary School in Vermilion, wrote letters full of questions such as, “Where are you?” and “How long?” and expressions of love such as, “I miss you,” and “Can’t wait ’til you get home.”
She has some ideas about what to do now that they are reunited. Gabriella said she wants to go to a park with her dad and just “spend some time with family.”
Contact Vanessa McCray at: email@example.com or 419-724-6065.