Lisa Britton

BAKER CITY — The kids didn’t know what to do.

They hadn’t hugged their mom, Lt. Commander Katy Gray, for nine months. And there she was, standing right in front of them, clad in camouflage.

It took a moment for the sight to sink in and then all three of Gray’s kids — second-grader Kyleigh and kindergartners Aiden and Addison — jumped up and ran to wrap their arms around her waist.

Gray, a reservist with the U.S. Navy, deployed for Afghanistan in March. While there, she served as the public affairs officer for a four-star general during the NATO mission.

Her children expected her home by Christmas.

Instead, she flew in to Boise last Friday, and stayed there to do paperwork while she and her husband, David, hatched a plan with the Brooklyn Primary School staff to surprise the couple’s children on Monday morning.

Although she said it was hard to delay her homecoming, David said the weekend was tougher on him to keep the secret.

“It’s been worse for me to not ruin it,” he said.

On Monday, the classes of Kathy Mitchell, Holly Miller and Kelsey Lehman gathered in the cafeteria for an assembly. As they settled on the benches, Mitchell set the stage for the surprise.

She talked about “filling buckets” — referencing a book that encourages kids to fill another’s imaginary bucket with kindness.

“We thought it would be good to fill someone’s bucket,” she told the kids. “Do you know how to do a drum roll?”

As the kids started patting their legs, in walked Gray who searched the sea of faces for her three children.

At one point in the reunion, Gray leaned down to look at Addison’s gap-toothed smile.

“You’re missing teeth,” she said to her daughter.

As Kyleigh, Aiden and Addison clung to their mom, their classmates stood up with banners printed with “Welcome Home” and “Thank you for your service.” Aiden’s class also handed her their renditions of the Liberty Bell they made.

During the gathering, Gray told the children about her time in Afghanistan.

“I was helping little kids go to school and walk safely in their towns,” she said. “And sharing their story here by taking pictures.”

Once the surprise was complete, the Gray kids retrieved their backpacks and checked out to spend the afternoon with their parents.

Prior to leaving the school, each child took Gray on a tour of their classroom — Aiden was especially keen to show his mom his kindergarten room.

During her nine-month deployment, Gray was able to communicate with her family most weekends using Skype or Facetime.

“The Wi-Fi over there is surprisingly good,” she said.

Gray will return to her job in public affairs for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in January.

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