Sergeant’s major surprise: Reunion with son, 3, in Oak Lawn
BY HANNAH KOHUT Correspondent June 14, 2012 7:00PM
Sgt. Tonya Martinez hugs her son Justin upon her return from a deployment in Afghanistan. The surprise reunion occured at Penny Lane School in Oak Lawn. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 14, 2012 10:09PM
Three-year-old Justin Abraham thought his “surprise” at the end of the school day Thursday would be a bag of potato chips.
He got something much greater — the return of his mother from serving overseas.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Tonya Martinez, 29, just finished a five-month deployment to Kuwait, and she surprised her son by picking him up from Penny Lane preschool in Oak Lawn.
Justin noticed that all his friends were wearing red, white and blue, and that his classroom was decorated with American flags, but that was easy to explain.
“We told him all this was for Flag Day,” said Justin’s teacher, Angela Roccasalva.
Justin had been through a lot emotionally the past five months.
When Martinez got her orders to go to Kuwait in late December, she, Justin and his father were living on base at Pope Field in North Carolina. Though Martinez said she was excited about her new mission, she was worried about child care. She could not leave Justin with his father, who also in the Air Force, because she was not sure what his future assignments would hold.
So Martinez, an Atlanta native, called on her aunt, who lives on Chicago’s South Side.
“I was excited and happy to be having Justin, but sad at the same time because we didn’t want her going overseas,” said the aunt, Geraldine Francis, 48. “It was a big adjustment, taking in a (then) 2-year-old, but I was so happy to have Justin here with me.”
Francis, known to Justin as “Aunt Connie,” said Justin was able to talk to his mom via online video chats, and said she placed pictures of his mother all over her home.
“She would call whenever she had the opportunity, once or twice a week,” Francis said. “He talks about her all the time. Sometimes he’s like, ‘I want to see my mommy.’ ”
The big surprise
About 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Martinez and Justin’s father, Oliver Abraham, were greeted by nearly 100 children wearing red, white and blue and waving American flags down the hallway, leading Martinez to Justin’s classroom.
When Martinez walked in, Justin looked confused, but it didn’t take him long to leap into his mother’s arms. Martinez wept and kissed her son.
“I got home on May 29 and went back to Pope Field, and we got here (Oak Lawn) a couple of hours ago,” Martinez said. “We leave Sunday, with Justin, to go back to North Carolina. I missed him a whole lot.”
Pulling it off
Roccasalva said Francis contacted her several weeks ago, wanting to do a surprise homecoming at the school for Justin.
“His great-aunt Connie started telling us Martinez was coming home, and she really likes those coming-home TV shows,” Roccasalva said. “But in those, it’s (almost) always Dad coming home, and rarely Mom, so she really wanted to show a mom coming home and how it affects both Mom and Dad.”
Making it easy for Roccasalva: At 3, Justin couldn’t read the “Welcome home, Tonya Martinez” signs hanging in his classroom.
“He has no idea what’s happening today,” Roccasalva said before the surprise. “When I asked him earlier, he told me that he thinks his surprise is a bag of chips, so he’s very excited about his bag of chips.”
Francis said that although she’s happy to see Justin and his mother reunited, it will be quite an adjustment for her.
“It was a big (change) at first, rushing home after work to make sure I’m here by 6 o’clock to get him, and all the kiddie things,” Francis said. “It really hit me today that he’s going to be gone. I’m happy he’s being reunited with his mommy, but sad for myself because I’m losing my little buddy.”
Martinez said she has been in the Air Force for six years, and her main responsibility during her deployment was refueling jets and planes for the U.S. military. Justin’s father also is an Air Force staff sergeant and has been in service for nearly eight years.