They squeezed him into a small plane in Texas on Thursday morning and shipped him to Charlotte, where he spent the night.
Nathan Kelly thought about his family the entire time.
He imagined his mother, who had no clue he would be coming home, bursting into tears. Then he thought of a little blond-haired boy he’d only seen on a computer screen for the better part of three years. And that was only when the Internet in Afghanistan decided to work.
But Friday there the boy was, sitting at a school computer at Indian Village Elementary, real-life flesh and blood and not a series of pixels generated from half-a-world away.
Donning the fatigues he wore during his flights from Charlotte to Detroit to Fort Wayne that morning, Kelly quietly snuck up behind the boy before throwing his arms around him.
What are you doing? he asked.
Astonished to see his father, Landon Kelly threw his arms around him, looked at the computer screen briefly and said simply:
Then the boy burrowed his head into the shoulder of his father.
Neither one looked like he wanted to let go anytime soon.
Thus came to a close one of the biggest secrets Nathan Kelly and his sister, Nicole Kelly, kept for the past few weeks.
An engineer with the Army National Guard in North Carolina, Kelly had been deployed to Afghanistan and Kuwait for the better part of the year.
Upon the end of that deployment, he wanted to come back to Indiana to surprise his family and especially his son, who is now a third-grader.
Between being deployed and being stationed so far away, Kelly’s family estimated it had been about three years since the two were in the same room.
It was so hard to keep this a secret, said Nicole Kelly, who helped plan her brother’s visit to the school.
They told other family members he’d be coming home the following weekend, though they knew he’d be in town Friday.
Earlier in the morning, Nathan surprised his mother, Brie Kelly, at her work, causing her to do exactly what he imagined:
Brie had even talked to him over the phone, not knowing he was already at the airport and getting ready to come see her.
He said he wasn’t doing much, she said, laughing.
For Landon’s mother, Heather Brent, it couldn’t have been a more thrilling morning knowing what was going to happen for her son that afternoon.
I was so excited sending him off to school, Brent said. It was hard to keep it from him all week.
Soon after father and son were reunited, they were surrounded by television cameras, reporters and newspaper photographers.
And they were peppered with questions.
One of them: What now?
Kelly has put in transfer papers to come back to Indiana, but as far as the immediate future, that had not been decided yet.
What do you want to do? Nathan asked his boy.
I don’t know, the boy said.
OK, said his father, holding the boy close. We’ll figure it out as we go along.