Re­turn of de­ployed hus­band fol­lows stu­dent’s grad­u­a­tion

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Metro - By Liz Teitz STAFF WRITER [email protected]­press-news.net

Over the past week, Air Force Master Sgt. Nathan Mc­Neil started care­fully cov­er­ing his tracks, ex­plain­ing to his wife, Heather Jo Mc­Neil, that he wouldn’t have in­ter­net this week­end at the re­mote Alaska lo­ca­tion where he was sta­tioned.

Some­one would have to drive him to Fair­banks, he told Heather, where he’d be able to watch her walk across the stage and grad­u­ate from the Univer­sity of the In­car­nate Word.

Satur­day morn­ing, he video­called her, the shot strate­gi­cally cal­cu­lated to sell the lie: He was in uni­form, hold­ing a ra­dio, sit­ting in a win­dow­less room with no signs of his lo­ca­tion, look­ing like he was work­ing a shift, as he said he’d be.

He was sched­uled to re­turn home this week after a 13-month de­ploy­ment, just miss­ing by a few days the mo­ment when his wife would re­ceive her bach­e­lor’s de­gree from UIW’s school of pro­fes­sional stud­ies.

But Satur­day af­ter­noon, after Heather shook Pres­i­dent Thomas Evans’ hand and crossed the stage, she rounded the cor­ner and saw her hus­band, wait­ing with a bou­quet of red and white flow­ers.

As the crowd in Free­man Coli­seum clapped and cheered for the re­union, their five chil­dren jumped to their feet and rushed from sec­tion 123 to­ward the stage.

Back­stage, Re­gan, 2, Joel, 6, and Lia, 8, jumped into Nathan’s arms. As he hugged Kon­nor, 16, and Cody, 17, Heather took in the mo­ment.

On what was al­ready a big day, “this made it a lot big­ger,” she said.

They’ve been sep­a­rated by as­sign­ments be­fore, Nathan said, but this was the first time he was gone for more than a year.

While plan­ning the sur­prise, some­one sug­gested he wait on stage be­fore his wife re­ceived her de­gree, he said, but he wanted to be sure she got the ex­pe­ri­ence — and the tear-free photo — of shak­ing Evans’ hand be­fore he saw her.

“This is her mo­ment, she de­serves this mo­ment,” he said

Asked what was next after the cer­e­mony and sur­prise, Heather paused for a mo­ment. “We’re go­ing to cel­e­brate be­ing a fam­ily again,” she said.

Car­los Javier Sanchez / Con­trib­u­tor

Heather Jo Mc­Neil, along with daugh­ters Lia, 8, and Re­gan, 2, and son Joel, 6, were sur­prised by Air Force Master Sgt. Nathan Mc­Neil at Heather’s grad­u­a­tion from UIW at Free­man Coli­seum.

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