NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — Five-year-old Jayden Tillman will likely remember his preschool graduation for the rest of his life.
On Wednesday, Tillman put on a blue satin cap and gown and paraded past family members sitting in the front row at Old MacDonald Preschool. He was just stretching out his hand to accept his diploma when he caught sight of someone standing on the sidelines.
“Dad!” he yelled, rushing into the arms of a tall man dressed in black. It was a reunion six months in the making.
Jayden's father, Jason, a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy, had just returned from the Persian Gulf. It had been Thanksgiving since he had hugged his family, which in addition to Jayden includes Jason's wife, Brandi, and their daughter, Carlee, 3.
Jason arrived in North Platte about an hour before the ceremony — after 15 hours of traveling. He boarded a plane in Honolulu on Tuesday and flew to San Diego, then to Denver, before ending up in North Platte. The entire time, he counted the minutes until he could surprise his son.
“The look on his face was worth it,” Jason said.
The two chased each other around trees on the playground, making up for lost time.
“He missed Christmas and both the kids' birthdays,” Brandi said.
She said the children have talked to Jason on the phone and Skyped occasionally, but it's not the same.
“He's only back for a week, but it's so good to have him home,” she said. “I'm good at being a mom. I'm not very good at being a dad.”
Jason said he was looking forward to some rest and relaxation, but that might not happen. His time off is already scheduled with activities, including traveling to a wedding in Omaha and visiting more family in his native Iowa.
Jayden also has big plans for his dad.
“I'm looking forward to exercising with him,” he said. “And playing and mowing the lawn.”
Jason has served nearly 13 years in the military and said he takes a little bit of home with him every time he's deployed.
“I've gotten to see some cool places, but I love coming back to the kids,” he said. “It reminds me what I'm fighting for.”