Surprise homecoming reunites family

It appeared to be a typical Thursday for Theresa Byrne.

The Costa Mesa resident's days hadn't varied significantly in the nearly six months since her husband was deployed by the Air Force to Central Asia.

That was about to change.

With an anxious expression, Zachary Byrne straightened his camouflage cap, fitting it perfectly over his buz cut.

He held his young son close to his chest as he swung open the door of the Killybrooke Elementary School office.

Stepping out into the afternoon sunlight, he moved slowly with a nervous smile, eyes fixed on Theresa, her long, dark hair hanging over her blue polo shirt as she chatted with a fellow employee while watching a group of elementary students play on the nearby blacktop.

Theresa placed her hand over her mouth, unsure if the man before her was a apparition.

"I knew she wouldn't expect it," Zachary, an airman first class, said in an interview later. "I knew she would be focused on her work."

Tears spilled from her eyes, falling onto his camouflage uniform as the two embraced. The world appeared to stop in that moment for the couple, who failed to notice the group of young children crowding around them, cheering and talking excitedly.

It had been nearly six months since Zachary hugged his wife and 2-year-old son, Dominick.

When he deployed to Kyrgyzstan in November, he knew maintaining a relationship with his family would be difficult. He missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and all the seemingly insignificant activities of being at home.

"We would Skype and text, but it's just not the same," he said.

Dominick kissed him on the cheek, and what he missed most became clear.

"I miss this right here," he said, affectionately placing his hand on the back of his son's head. "I miss being able to hold my son and have my wife by my side."

Theresa works for the city as a coordinator for the Recreation on Campus for Kids (ROCKS) after-school program. Before he was deployed, Zachary worked with his wife in the program.

But the pair knew each other long before that.

A happenstance meeting on a trip to Laughlin, Nev., with friends led to the couple marrying in 2010 and starting a family nearly two years later.

"I hate having him away," Theresa said. "It sucks communicating through texting and messages. It's not the same not being able to see him every day."

Zachary hopes to enjoy the day-to-day routine with his family while he can before returning to his base in three weeks.

Theresa quickly finished her work and left with her family a short time after the surprise, stopping to hug her husband again as they exited the school.

"I was shocked," she said. "It doesn't seem real."

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