AMSTERDAM — Leaving school early on Friday afternoon was a surprise for second-grader Camden Wade, one that was instantly topped when he saw his stepfather, U.S. Army Sgt. Derrick Pitts, was there to pick him up.
Derrick returned home from an 11-month deployment overseas on Friday morning. An hour later, he and wife, Cristina Pitts, made their way to William H. Barkley Elementary for a surprise family reunion.
Cristina said it was difficult to keep Derrick’s homecoming a secret from 7-year-old Camden even though it was one she only had to keep for two short days. Derrick returned stateside seven days earlier and the pair just learned on Wednesday that he would be home by the end of the week.
Chatting with Barkley Principal Donna Decker before dismissals less than 24 hours before her husband’s return, Cristina asked if they could stage a homecoming reveal at the school to surprise Camden. Decker was happy to lend a hand setting up the ruse.
“I think it’s extra special right now with all of the stuff that’s going on to have a little bit of joy,” Decker said.
Schools are currently closed to visitors under coronavirus precautions, leading the principal to set the stage outside. A sign welcoming Pitts home was placed near the main school entrance where Derrick, Cristina and 20-month-old Noah waited. Then the principal led Camden outside.
“Hey, silly goose,” Derrick greeted Camden as he rounded the corner and paused in surprise.
“You didn’t tell me you were coming home,” Camden exclaimed before running to his stepfather.
Getting picked up from school took on new meaning as Derrick embraced Camden and lifted him up into his arms.
Cristina, who admitted she was uncertain if stoic Camden would react, looked on happily with Noah before he ran to his big brother and father to join the merriment.
With his stepfather back home until at least late June, Camden said he is looking forward to months of fun playing together, which began immediately as Camden and Noah darted joyfully around the sergeant.
Derrick said seeing his kids for the first time in almost a year and their surprised reactions was something he felt deeply.
“I can’t even put it into words. It’s just gut wrenching,” Derrick said.
What was his second deployment overseas in his 10-year service career brought him to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. He said the deployment mainly involved retrograde activities supporting the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan under former President Donald Trump and now President Joe Biden.
The sergeant offered no opinions on the drawdown, saying the political decision is something for others to decide. He is simply happy to have made it home to his family along with the other members of his unit.
“Everybody came home safely and that’s all that really matters in the end, to get home to their families,” Derrick said. “When you’re on deployment it feels like it’s never ending and now that you’re here, it’s a blessing. I couldn’t be happier.”
While he’s home, Derrick said he is looking forward to spending time with his wife and kids, especially after missing out on important firsts his family shared with Noah over the past year that he only experienced secondhand.
“I didn’t get to see his first steps or anything like that,” Derrick said. “Now I get to see all of it.”