Students typically enjoy the last day of school, but three Effingham County girls had an unforgettable one Friday.
Georgia Air National Guard Master Sgt. Ray Horton returned that morning from a six-month deployment to southwest Asia and made surprise visits to his three daughters’ schools.
“Being away for six months, this is a homecoming that you dream of,” he said.
Horton, who was born and raised in Effingham County, and his fellow airmen from the 117th Air Control Squadron landed at Hunter Army Airfield around 8:30 a.m. He and his wife Martha headed straight to Effingham County Middle School to surprise their daughter Maegan, then to Effingham County High for daughters Hannah and Emily.
Asked if it was her best-ever ending to a school year, Emily emphatically answered, “Yes! I’ll remember this the rest of my life.”
Horton’s unit deployed Nov. 12. Along with being away for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, he missed Emily’s birthday, his father’s birthday and his wife’s graduation from the Technical College of the Lowcountry’s nursing program.
Friday’s priceless moments helped make up for the family time Horton missed during his third deployment since 2006.
“I’m not sure if this is my last deployment or not,” he said, “but it’s something we wanted to try to do for the girls – and for myself as well, being a little bit selfish, I wanted to surprise them and get that reaction from them.”
Did he ever.
‘Not the same without him’
Seventh-grader Maegan and the rest of the ECMS student body were assembled in the auditorium for the school’s talent show. Horton waited behind the stage curtain as teacher Emily McClure introduced the special guest visiting campus.
“He flew all the way from southwest Asia this morning to be with us,” McClure told the students. “Please give a warm welcome to Master Sgt. Horton.”
The curtain opened, and Maegan ran toward her father and jumped into his arms. Horton gave his youngest daughter a big hug and a kiss on the cheek as the crowd roared.
“The house isn’t the same without him,” Maegan said afterward. “He’s the only man in the house, with four girls.”
After weeks of planning the surprise with his wife, Horton described seeing Maegan’s reaction as “absolutely wonderful.”
“It brought tears to my eyes, I can’t lie,” he said. “It was just a rush of emotions.”
He wasn’t the only one shedding tears of joy. Ninth-grader Emily was overcome with emotion when her dad walked into her classroom at ECHS.
Sitting on the floor, Emily put her hands over her face and sobbed. Horton knelt beside her and put his arms around her, then picked her up for a bigger hug.
“Gotcha,” he said softly, and then asked, “Good surprise?” Emily smiled and nodded as she wiped tears from her eyes.
“It’s been so hard, so hard,” Emily said of her father’s latest deployment. “I’m used to it, but it’s still so hard to see him gone.”
Prior to seeing Emily, Horton got a surprise of his own. As he walked down a hallway toward the classroom he thought 10th-grade daughter Hannah would be in, he marched right past the one where she actually was.
“I just saw a uniform go by, and I just knew (the unit was) coming home today,” Hannah said.
Hannah ran to the hallway, and she saw that the man in uniform was in fact her father. She yelled and hugged him as a group of students who had assembled to watch the moment unfold applauded.
“It feels good,” Hannah said. “It’s been rough.”
‘All worth it’
Horton said he and his wife began hatching this plan about three months ago. In fact, they were throwing around several ideas, since he wasn’t sure exactly what day he would come home until about a week before it happened.
“We had multiple plans working, just in case one didn’t work out,” he said with a smile. “It just so happened, I got home on the last day of school.”
For their scheme to work, Martha had to tell their daughters a fib.
“My mom said that, since he was a higher rank, he had to stay another week and get the other troops ready to come back,” Maegan explained.
“You bought it,” her father chimed in good-naturedly.
Martha acknowledged her secret had “been really hard to hold in.” She didn’t regret it one bit, though, describing her daughters’ reactions as “just priceless.”
“This was all worth it,” she said.
However, their plan was nearly undone by their eldest daughter. Hannah saw news reports that the 117th Air Control Squadron was coming home Friday, and she caught a glimpse of an e-mail in her mom’s inbox that made her suspicious.
“I just had a feeling he was coming home (Friday),” she said.
But Hannah’s hunch didn’t at all take away from the moment he surprised her at school. The same was true for Maegan and Emily, who didn’t have the same suspicions.
“My sister had an idea, but I didn’t believe it,” Emily said.
Hannah was with her parents when they went to Emily’s classroom, followed by a throng of students. Emily saw Hannah first, and didn’t think much of it.
“I saw my sister and I thought, ‘Oh, she’s just here to get me out of class or whatever,’” Emily said. “And then I saw him come in and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
The timing of Horton’s return home was fitting. The end of his 2006 deployment also coincided with Memorial Day, and he came back from his 2010 deployment July 3.
“So every time that he’s come home, it’s always been a really good holiday,” Martha said.
On the Web
Go to the Featured Video section of www.effinghamherald.net to watch clips of Master Sgt. Ray Horton’s surprise visits to his daughters after returning home from a six-month deployment.