Six-year-old Grace La Giglia was sitting at her school desk, pencil in hand, when she felt a tap on her back.
It was daddy, back after a year in Afghanistan.
Army Sgt. John La Giglia scooped his little girl into his arms and held her tight as she buried her face in his shoulder. He loosened his grip just enough to hug his other two children.
"Hi buddy," he told his son Michael, kissing the 4-year-old on the cheek while holding his 2-year-old daughter Brooke close to him.
Behind him in the first-grade classroom at Sutherland Elementary School were his wife Mariellyn and about 15 other relatives. They had planned this tearful reunion at the school in the Beverly neighborhood Friday because La Giglia, 29, had returned earlier than expected and they wanted to surprise Grace.
“I’m really happy,” Grace said with a big smile, holding a small bouquet of flowers her father gave her.
Mariellyn La Giglia said her husband's absence has been a strain on her two oldest kids, particularly Michael, who constantly asked why his father wasn’t home.
“I think (Michael) thought that he was actually at the airport,” she said. “He would always ask me, ‘Just go get him. Just go pick him up.’ That was definitely a hard thing to hear all the time.”
John La Giglia said "it gets hard when they’re on the phone, asking and pleading with you to come home. There’s nothing you can say to explain it to them and they definitely will not understand it.”
The 10-year veteran who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan was given a hero’s welcome outside his daughter’s school by some three dozen cheering relatives, friends and well-wishers who lined up with American flags as he arrived.
After being reunited with his children, Sutherland’s students and faculty flooded the hallway chanting, “USA! USA!”
“I’m overwhelmed,” said La Giglia. “The community has always supported me throughout the year. I’ve been all around the world and there’s nothing like the South Side of Chicago.”