When Justin Willbanks walked into his school’s office on Tuesday, he was expecting to see and say ‘hi’ to his mom, pick up his sandwich for lunch, and be on his way.

To his surprise, he saw a TV camera pointed in his direction. He let out an audible “oh,” and then his vision shifted to the man he had not seen in six months.

He went silent for a moment and when it clicked that, yes, here was his dad in the flesh in U.S. Army fatigues, that’s when he rushed over to hug him, and the tears started to fall.

His father, Tyler Willbanks, was busy Tuesday morning, his first day back in Arizona since August 2011. He first stopped at Desert Vista High School and surprised his two daughters in their choir classroom. Then, the three of them, along with mom, Kealani Willbanks, went over to Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School to surprise the youngest member of the family.

“Our teacher told us a composer was coming in to train us, and we honestly thought it was just a prank,” daughter Marissa Aguliar, 15, said. “I didn’t think it was real when he came in. I started touching his face just to make sure he was real.”

Kealani learned that her husband would be returning to the United States last week and kept it a secret from the rest of the family. Aside from his brief visit in August, Tyler had spent the majority of the last 12 months stationed in Afghanistan. He flew from there to Dallas last weekend, where Kealani met him for the weekend.

“You said you were in California for work,” Justin, 14, said when the plan started to come to light.

“Keeping it a surprise was very difficult, but absolutely worth it,” Kealani said.

His 12-month stint in Afghanistan was the second longest in the Middle East since he enlisted in the military more than 23 years ago. Previously, he spent 16 months in Iraq and in between he did four shorter tours in the area.

“These guys have always been my No. 1 priority,” Justin said of his family. “They were always on my mind when I was over there.”

This isn’t the first time for their family that a surprise has been attached to a delivery. When Tyler was overseas, he was receiving care packages through a website called AnySoldier.com. It was through these deliveries and the subsequent “thank you” letters that he first started talking to his future wife, Kealani.

“I would make my guys write thank you letters,” he said. “We got a lot of care packages but this one, I decided to respond to. Years later, and here we are (married).”

Tyler, a major in the U.S. Army, will set out for New Mexico to see his two other daughters before coming back to Phoenix for the relatively long haul, where he will be stationed in Mesa.

“I’ve already got a huge to-do list (now that I’m home),” he joked. “I’m just glad to be back.”

Contact writer: (480) 898-4903 or troemhild@ahwatukee.com

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