Las Vegas Airman surprises family, returns home early

By Senior Airman Adarius Petty 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

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For many military members deployments are a fact of life, but it's often the homecomings that make the sacrifices all worth it.

On Feb. 13, 2015, one local Airman's family celebrated the homecoming of their lifetime with a well-planned post-deployment surprise.

While deployed, Staff Sgt. Julie Mauldin, 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, worked with a local news channel to plan a surprise for her family at the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay. She assumed it was the perfect location, since the family goes there frequently and the kids wouldn't expect anything more than a typical visit.

"We have the annual passes, so we go to the aquarium all the time," said Mauldin. "The kids will love it."

Mauldin, who returned home two days prior, expressed how difficult it had been to keep the secret.

"It's been hard because I've been so close to home and I can't tell anybody that I'm here. I just want to call and tell my daughters I'm here but I can't yet," she said.

Mauldin came up with the idea to surprise her family before she even left for deployment. Having seen other military members return home in special ways inspired her to consider providing her husband, two daughters, and son with a similar surprise.

"I've always thought [the surprise] homecomings were so awesome, and now I get to do one myself," she said. "This is such a big thing to me, getting to come home to my children and surprise them as well."

Mauldin often received text messages from her family as she prepared for her duty day while overseas, so her husband didn't find it odd that she asked for pictures and updates while her family toured the aquarium. What he didn't know, though, was that today she wasn't overseas anymore, she was just one room away anxiously waiting to surprise him and their children.

"It's just an exciting feeling; it's like I can't believe this is happening. There is a little bit of disbelief and excitement," said Mauldin, all the while texting back to her husband and waiting for the right time to come out.

Toward the end of the family's tour, divers in the aquarium swam up to the children and showed a sign reading, "Surprise Jason and Kids ... Look behind you." The two girls and her husband turned around and saw Mauldin standing, waiting patiently.

When Mauldin's 11 and 3-year old daughters turned around, it didn't take them long to realize what was happening, and they ran into their mothers open arms.

"It's mommy," exclaimed Samantha, Mauldin's oldest daughter.

"When I saw them come running, I just wanted to pick them up and never let them go," said Mauldin, holding her children close.

The girls were beyond excited to see their mother after being away for five months that Samantha was nearly speechless.

"I was so shocked I thought 'is this real?'" said Samantha.

After the surprise homecoming, hugs and kisses, Mauldin's husband said he was astonished by how his wife had everything so well planned.

"I [suspected] as soon as I saw the sign," said Jason, Mauldin's husband. "I started looking around and there she was right behind us. I'm amazed she kept it a secret, [but mostly] I'm glad she's home."