Return of deployed husband follows student’s graduation
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.
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.