An eight-and-a-half-hour flight across the Atlantic, a formal welcome home ceremony and an evening with his wife made up the 270th day the soldier waited to see his sons again.
When Trimmier Elementary School Principal Penny Batts called 6-year-old Liam out of his kindergarten class Thursday, the little boy walked into the hallway, then scurried up to his dad, Sgt. Jonnathan Perez Olivieri.
The pair embraced, sharing tender greetings in their native Spanish tongue as wife and mom Elizabeth Santos Pagan and a half dozen school administrators wiped tears and recorded images of the touching moment.
After lunch, a similar scene played out at Audie Murphy Middle School on Fort Hood with 11-year-old sixth-grader Eliel Perez Santos, making the family reunion complete.
Audie Murphy Principal Mike Quinn walked into the library with the sixth-grader, supposedly to check on a library book, when the boy noticed a familiar soldier at the back of the room and he raced to embrace his dad.
During four years in the U.S. Army, the signal support systems specialist has completed two overseas tours.
The last one, to Korea, happened when his youngest son was 3 years old and far less aware of what was happening.
This time, the little boy continuously urged his mother to show him the daily countdown she kept on her phone.
More complicated schedules made connections more difficult for the separated family this time around, Santos Pagan said.
On this second return home, the soldier wanted to make a special memory with his family, so his wife worked out the details for a pair of surprise reunions at Killeen ISD schools a few hours after the trans-Atlantic flight home.
Once you ship out, Perez Olivieri said, the countdown begins to see family again and when it finally happens, there’s no explaining the joy.
The close-knit family stayed in touch digitally, but this deployment was especially difficult, covering every family member’s birthday, the couple’s 15th wedding anniversary and the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
It also covered a lot of traditional Friday pizza and movie nights. But, at the boys’ request, the family will be celebrating every missed holiday starting this weekend.
The soldier said this is the military life and his is like thousands of others, only blessed by the people he returns to. “I’m grateful,” the soldier said just before visiting some of his oldest son’s classes. “There are many soldiers who come back, go through the ceremony and then head to the barracks because they don’t have family here. I’m blessed.”
“Now I’m relieved,” his wife said. “I’m happy. I can relax because he’s OK.”
Perez Olivieri is one of about 3,500 Fort Hood soldiers with the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, who are in the process of returning from a nine-month rotation to Europe.