Siblings Blaine, Bryce and Brynn Mermis thought the gathering at Eisenhower Elementary School Friday afternoon was just a celebration of a school-wide accomplishment – no tardies during the last quarter.
But, Blaine, an 11-year-old fifth grader, Bryce, a 9-year-old third grader and Brynn, a 7-year-old first grader, were in for a joyous and tearful surprise.
Their father, Specialist Tyler Mermis, who had spent most of the last year deployed to the Horn of Africa with the Army National Guard, returned to the States last week. He was in Great Bend to see his kids for the first time in months.
“I just missed my dad so much. I just started to cry,” said a beaming Brynn. “I just wanted him to come home.”
For the past few days, the reunion was considered a top-secret mission at Eisenhower. The staff, the Mermis children’s mother Annetta Mermis and Tyler’s current wife Melissa were all in on the plot. A lot of planning went into it so the Mermis children had no idea what was coming.
Then Friday afternoon, the entire student body flooded the gymnasium after each getting a snow cone. Principal Trish Reser addressed them.
“We invited some special people,” she said. “We have a visitor who came a very long way to help us celebrate.”
Then, over the public address system from behind the stage curtain, a voice boomed. “Congratulations.”
Next, the curtain opened and Tyler stood in his camouflage fatigues .
“Oh my God,” shouted Blaine.
In a matter of seconds, three Mermis children had rushed to and leaped onto the stage, smothering their father. They were almost as one.
There were hugs, kisses and tears.
Everyone else in the gym applauded. There were few dry eyes.
“It’s been tough,” Tyler said. He returned last week, but has kept his arrival a secret from his kids since they thought he wouldn't be back for another three weeks.
“We’ll be spending the weekend at (Blaine’s) basketball tournament,” Tyler said. There will also be other family activities.
Tyler’s grandmother Elma Lepej, 95, was present Friday as well. She, too, was surprised.
“I am really proud of him,” said his mother Patty Smith. “It’s exciting. It’s a sweet reunion.”
Smith said Tyler was once named NCO soldier of the month in his unit, out of almost 600 soldiers, a first for the unit. In July, out of 400 soldiers, he was picked as soldier of the base.
“He’s done really well,” his mom said. “We are really proud of him.”
He came back for a couple weeks just after Thanksgiving. “It was great having him home for that holiday,” Smith said.
She said his time overseas has gone quickly since that visit. All along, they have talked on the phone, but chatting on Facebook has been the main connection for the mother and son.
Mermis, a Great Bend native and 1994 Great Bend High School grad, is now a resident of Marion where he was the assistant police chief and coaches baseball.
He got home Thursday, Jan. 12, and was sworn back in to his job on the Marion Police Department on Friday. But, he left as the assistant police chief and now he is the chief.
Technically, Tyler and his cohorts deployed in early last year, but they trained in Salina and Indiana before leaving for Africa in April. Tyler was stationed in Kenya.
A former Marine, he joined the Guard in November 2010.
Smith said it was a tearful and emotional afternoon during the ceremony at the Bicentennial Center in Salina when they left. “It was a moving experience,” said Smith, who attended the event with family members.
Tyler and his fellow soldiers are from the 1st Battalion, 161st Field Artillery, headquartered in Wichita, with subordinate units in Dodge City, Great Bend, Lenexa, Liberal, Hutchinson, Newton, Paola, Pratt and Topeka.
Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer and Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the adjutant general, spoke at the ceremony.
“These Guardsmen will be working closely with local entities to build relationships,” said Tafanelli during the farewell. “They will be mentors and advisers, sharing what they have learned as soldiers and citizens of Kansas and learning from the people they will meet, as well.”
The unit is commanded by Lt. Col. Thomas Burke and the command sergeant major is Command Sgt. Maj. Ricky Matticks.
The unit’s mission was to conduct stability operations in various African nations in order to strengthen partner nation and regional security and long-term stability, prevent conflict, and protect U.S. and Coalition interests.