Garrett Taylor knew something was up when a couple of photographers walked into his first-grade classroom at Brick Mill Elementary School on Friday.
But that still didn't prepare him for the shock of seeing his uncle, U.S. Air Force Major David Strawbridge, who had just returned from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan the night before.
"I was so surprised," the 7-year-old said after tearfully hugging Strawbridge. "This is awesome because I just really missed him."
After a brief moment getting reacquainted with his nephew, Strawbridge spoke to Taylor's class, answered their questions about his deployment and posed for photos before joining them for lunch in the school's cafeteria.
"I know this means a lot to Garrett, because all he ever talks about is his uncle David," teacher Annie Rosenthal said. "It's funny because some of the kids had said they didn't think he existed, because Garrett talks about him so much, but no one had ever seen him in real life."
Even the photographs Strawbridge sent of himself in Afghanistan posing with Flat Stanley, the main character of a popular children's book who is mailed to far-away places as part of a common classroom project, weren't enough to convince them entirely, Rosenthal said.
Strawbridge, a Middletown resident who enlisted in the Air Force immediately after graduating from William Penn High School in 1986, said the reunion was just as exciting for him as it was for his nephew.
"Leaving is never easy for me, or my wife and daughter," he said. "But I know this time was especially hard for Garrett because he's my special little guy and this is the first time I've been gone for any extended period of time since he was born."
Strawbridge said he couldn't discuss his mission in Afghanistan except to say that he supported the International Security Assistance Force, which is responsible for training the Afghan National Security Forces and carrying out intensive combat operations.
"It was a challenging and somewhat dangerous time, but I'm home now," he told Garrett's classmates. "Before this I was stationed at the Pentagon – a huge, huge building where the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff hang out."
Strawbridge told the class his job has also taken him to places like Haiti, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Turkey and the small African republic of Djibouti, whose name, pronounced "Jah-booty," drew howls of laughter from the first graders.
"This is so great and I know Garrett is thrilled," said Dea Taylor, Garrett's mother and Strawbridge's older sister. "His uncle is everything to him. He's his mentor and his hero."
Garrett said he was just eager for the school day to end so he could fill his uncle in on everything that's happened since he left.
Page 2 of 2 - "I can't wait to show him my RC trucks," the first grader said. "And also Flat Stanley, because now they're both finally home."