The last time Staff Sgt. Melissa King was deployed, her daughter Laila was too young to remember it.
Her second deployment, a six-month stint in southwest Asia, was a different story. Laila, now a kindergarten student at Spring Creek Elementary School, knew exactly what was going on.
"Where I was, we were able to get on Skype and talk to each other," Mrs. King said. "She told me 'Mommy, just tell the Air Force you want to come home.'"
Spring Creek celebrated the Month of the Military Child Thursday with a balloon release ceremony. It was also the day Mrs. King returned home. With Laila none the wiser, she arrived at the school with her family as the children assembled in the school gym.
Stepping in to the gym hidden behind the purple balloons, Mrs. King waited as each kindergarten student received theirs. All except for Laila.
As Laila looked up for her balloon, a teacher moved it to the side to reveal the smiling face of her mother. Laila jumped forward and wrapped her arms around her, smiling from ear-to-ear.
"Mommy, you came back," she said, her face buried in Mrs. King's shoulder.
The balloon release and the surprise were a repeat of a similar event the school did last year, said Principal Nicole Barrett. The population of military children at Spring Creek has nearly doubled in recent years due to nearby residential development, she said, so making military children feel welcome is more important than ever.
"We did something similar last year, with a student whose parent had been away on a two-year deployment," she said. "Many of our teachers here are retired military, so they know how difficult it can be moving around, how hard it is to make new friends. We try to make it as personable as we can and make it feel like when you come to Spring Creek Elementary, you're at home."
Soon the students were ready to release their balloons. Dozens of kids gathered on the grass outside the school, with many more looking on from the sidewalk. And while many were anticipating the release, Laila's mind was on what she would do now that her mother is home.
"We're going to get sno cones," she said with a smile.
On the count of three, the students released their balloons into the sky. Laila and Mrs. King watched them float away, standing side by side, as they had been since the moment they reunited.