Military dad returns home for Christmas, surprises sons at Rockland elementary school

ROCKLAND, MASS. (WHDH) - Three Rockland brothers received an unforgettable Christmas gift when their father returned home from deployment overseas and surprised them at the school on Friday in front of a packed assembly.

With the entire student body gathered in the gymnasium for what was believed to be a routine assembly, Army National Guard Sgt. Michael Leone removed the head of the Rockland Bulldog costume he was wearing and surprised all of those in attendance, including his three sons, 5-year-old Nathan, 8-year-old Tyler, and 6-year-old Tolan.

“The whole surprise went really well, and the kids didn’t see it coming,” said Leone, a member of the 181st Infantry Regiment of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, who had been deployed near the Djibouti-Somalia border since February. “The whole event was really well planned and it was a great feeling to be able to surprise my children like that.”

Esten Elementary School principal Marilyn Smith was recently approached by the boys’ mother, Brittany Leone, who said she wanted to come up with a way to surprise the boys when their father returned.

“It was amazing how it all happened,” Smith said. “Our assembly got canceled Tuesday because of the snow, so we were able to move it to Friday. I called School Resource Officer Ethan Schnabel to see if we could borrow Rocky, our school’s bulldog mascot costume, and it all just came together perfectly.”

After a photo was taken, Michael Leone removed the bulldog costume head and each of his children immediately recognized and hugged their father.

The students in the crowd rose to their feet and cheered when Smith announced to the room the identity of the man in the costume.

“People were screaming, teachers were crying, everything played out exactly how I had hoped,” Smith said. “We have a tradition at this school of supporting our veterans for everything they do, so to be able to have an event like this really meant a lot.”

Michael Leone said the deployment was very hard because his sons kept asking when he would be coming home.

“I would be able to talk to them once or twice a week, but being away from all three of them for so long made it really difficult,” he said. “You see stories on the news about surprises like this, but to be a part of one is tough to describe. It hit me yesterday that it was finally happening, and you don’t know what kinds of emotions you’re going to experience. Now that it’s all over it’s awesome to be able to look forward to spending the holidays with them.”

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