It has been very difficult for U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Kenneth Riley to be away from his wife and children when he has been deployed to the Middle East, where America has been engaged in a long war with Afghanistan.
But, by the time he got to his fifth deployment for the past seven months things had gotten more complicated with the birth of his two children.
Riley missed the birth of his daughter, Alexis, 5, during his last deployment and he did not meet her until she was 10 weeks old.
While the memory of that special moment was burned within Riley and his wife's mind, the only regret the Magnolia couple had was that the special moment was never captured by the camera. This time, Kenneth and Brandy Riley wanted as many cameras as possible there to document Thursday afternoon's reunion with his daughter, a student at McIlvaine Early Childhood Center, Caesar Rodney School District's kindergarten school.
Caesar Rodney Public Information Officer Ronald Gough, himself a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was only too happy to help. Gough invited members of the local press to come witness the reunion.
Alexis' brother Tristan, 4, had already had his special moment with dad at their home. The Riley family, of Magnolia, then drove to nearby McIlvaine where the airman walked up alongside Alexis as she sat in teacher Kara Wrede's class watching an episode of "Berenstain Bears." Wrede put the cartoon on to help children settle down after their school was searched by the Magnolia Fire Department and the Delaware Department of Health & Social Services for possible fumes when three children fell ill between Wednesday and Thursday.
After Alexis spied her father from the corner of her left eye, she jumped up into her father's arms for a long embrace.
What made this reunion with Alexis and Tristan more special than previous separations was the fact that his children had been sorely aware of his absence. The seven months away this time included one month of training within the 436th's Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit within.
"It presented challenges I never knew really existed," he said. "It was pretty tough."
When asked if this was the best Christmas present she received, Alexis was speechless. She simply agreed that she was happy her father was home. Tristan, meanwhile, just wanted to clutch at his father's leg and look up at the 6-foot frame of his father.
Watching all of the action unfold amidst the local media was Wrede, Alexis' kindergarten teacher.
"Alexis is a wonderful, loving child," she said. "This is very special for her."
Brandy Riley wiped the tears from her eyes as she too witnessed the reunion. Brandy was thinking about how every day her children asked for their father.
"This is my world," she said. "We're a very tight family. Kids for the first time understood [their father's absence]. Tristan cried everyday."
Joining the Riley family were Brandy's parents, Ginny and Lester Allaband, and Brandy's aunt, Becky Perry.