09/22/10 — Daddy's big surprise

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Daddy's big surprise

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 22, 2010 1:46 PM

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AnnaLee Casto, 6, was in Miss Valerie Holden's first-grade class at Northwest Elementary School when her father, Rocky, surprised her after arriving home from a four-month tour in Qatar. Mom Wendee and brother Mick, 3, met Dad at the airport and drove right to the school.

PIKEVILLE -- For a split second, it was as if AnnaLee Casto didn't recognize the uniform-clad man standing in her classroom doorway.

But then she looked into his eyes.

"Daddy," the little girl said, running toward him.

And moments later, with a kiss and a long embrace, her family, for the first time in more than four months, was whole again.

"I've been missing everything," the 6-year-old's father, Rocky, said. "I worried about how she would cope."

The airman -- a master sergeant and member of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 911th Air Refueling Squadron -- returned to Wayne County Tuesday after a tour at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

But his daughter wasn't the only one overjoyed.

His wife, Wendee, was celebrating, too.

Gone, she said, was the loneliness that sets in when a loved one goes to war.

And she would no longer be the "single mom" chasing after AnnaLee and her 3-year-old brother, Mick.

"You never get a minute of quiet time," Mrs. Casto said. "I had my hands full."

Like the day her daughter hit her head and the little girl's eye started swelling.

"You have to stay calm. I can't freak out," Mrs. Casto said. "It's just me."

And it was just her left to slow down Mick when he took off running -- like he did as the family tried to leave Northwest Elementary School after AnnaLee got her surprise visit.

"Now I can say, 'Rocky, go get him,'" Mrs. Casto said, smiling as her husband gave chase.

The airman, too, had to get used to life away from the family -- even though his service has seen him deploy several times since his oldest child was born.

"It was very tough just knowing they were missing me," he said.

And it was difficult knowing that he wouldn't be there to watch milestones unfold.

Like AnnaLee's first day of first grade.

Or Mick going through potty training.

But none of that seemed to matter Tuesday as the family -- together, for the first time in a quarter-year -- walked across the school grounds and through the parking lot.

For the airman, that moment marked the end of another chapter in a life defined by service.

"There's a lot of different things that show us we're appreciated," he said.

And for his children, it simply meant that Daddy was home.