SUMTER, S.C. – After six months of deployment to Iraq, Audrey Gippe returned to Kingsbury Elementary School to surprise her first-grader, Tyler.
"I like it so much," he said about his mom being home.
Gippe, 36, really has been away from her 7-year-old and her two other children, Shawn, 5, and Jessica, 2, longer than her deployment.
Last April, Tech Sgts. Audrey and her husband, Chris Gippe, re-enlisted for another four years of service with the Air Force. The catch was at the time Chris, 36, was stationed at Balad Air Base in Iraq, so the dual re-enlistment ceremony was held with the assistance of video communications 6,000 miles apart.
Shortly after she re-enlisted, Audrey headed for noncommissioned officer training. The day before she graduated, Chris returned from his deployment. And the day after she graduated, she got the notice she was being deployed. Two weeks later she was off to training and then out to Iraq.
"I got home in June," Chris said. "We basically high-fived each other, and she was gone. Over the last 15 months, we've not seen a lot of each other."
He said it was "definitely overwhelming" to have his wife home again.
"You're crying because Mommy's home," Shawn said to his dad.
He wasn't the only one tearing up.
"I just cried buckets," said Laura Lyles, Tyler's teacher.
With only a day's notice, Lyles played her part in pulling off the surprise. She told the students they were making a banner for a contest, and the classroom decorations and cake were for a guest speaker.
"We whipped it together real quick," she said.
Audrey was crying as well. She said it was tough being away from her children.
"Normally, I take care of everything," she said. "This was the first time in a while that (Chris) was taking care of them while I was gone."
When Tyler was 9 months old, she was deployed for four months.
"It was not like I wanted it to be," Tyler said about his dad being in charge. "I want you two to be in the house."
Chris wouldn't let the children eat too much fast food while mom was gone, something Tyler bemoaned but Audrey applauded. The family also had help from Kim Chuculate, the nanny Audrey described as a "Godsend."
Audrey said she would Skype, a form of video communication, with her family when she could, but the Internet connection was not always the best. They did have phone calls once a week, though.
"Shawn would ask, 'When are you coming home, Mommy,'" the mother said. "'I want you to come home.'"
While she was gone, the children had chain of paper links, and each night they would tear off a link to represent a day closer to their mommy coming home. She missed holidays and birthdays.
"Christmas was hard," Audrey said. "I'm used to spending it with family, and I wasn't there."
Lyles said Tyler was definitely thinking of his mother at Thanksgiving. The students did projects showing ways to hide turkeys to keep them safe. Tyler's was a camouflaged turkey with a sandstorm in front of it.
"He writes and talks about his mom all the time," the teacher said. "He tells stories of her being in Iraq. He relates everything back to his mom."
She was also worried about her youngest recognizing her.
"Jessica wasn't scared of me, so that was good," Audrey said. "I'm happy to be back."
She pinched her daughter's cheeks.
The family should be together for awhile now. Chris said he isn't projected to be deployed again until the end of the year.
"It's never long enough," he said about the family being together.
As for Audrey, she was looking forward to some simple pleasures.
"I'd like to take a bath," she said. "I've been taking combat showers for six months."