After a nine-month deployment, Lt. Steve Phillips returned home and surprised his son, a second-grader at Whispering Oak Elementary School.
Seven-year-old Chase Phillips always wanted his father, U.S. Navy Lt. Steve Phillips, to come to his school in uniform.
What he didn’t expect, though, was that dream to come true in the form of his father’s surprise homecoming at school Friday, Nov. 15.
Chase, a second-grader in Kelsey Longley’s class at Whispering Oak Elementary, hadn’t seen his dad in nine months. Steve Phillips, a task force movement logistics officer of U.S. Navy Cargo Handling Battalion 11, was deployed in February. He has been serving in Bahrain with the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, supporting Task Force Five Six.
Steve Phillips was in charge of the planning, coordination and tracking of all Task Force cargo and personnel in support of combat operations and international exercises. He received the Navy Achievement Medal during the deployment, and he returned home last week — along with 71 other deployed personnel from his Jacksonville-based reserve.
Julie Phillips, Chase’s mom and Steve Phillips’ wife, knew she wanted to do something special to make her husband’s homecoming memorable. After all, it was his first deployment. When she told the staff at Whispering Oak Elementary he was coming home, they were ready to do all they could to help welcome the hero home.
“This has been in the works for just a couple of days,” Julie Phillipssaid. “I got a call from (Assistant Principal) Ms. Joy (Stribling) and she said, ‘I don’t know how big or how small you want to make your husband’s homecoming, but if you’re interested, we’ve contacted Orange County Public Schools public relations and you can make it big or small. I said, ‘Let’s make it as big as we can.’
“It was everything I could have hoped it would be, and he’s always wanted his dad in a uniform at the school to show all of his friends that his dad is somebody to be proud of,” she said.
Chase’s class was set to be rewarded for good behavior with a special event at the media center Friday, so Whispering Oak Elementary decided to have Steve Phillips walk out in his uniform and surprise Chase in front of his class.
“It actually was easy as far as keeping it a secret with the kids, because they were going to be rewarded anyway, so they didn’t really suspect anything,” Whispering Oak Principal Lee “Kip” Montgomery said. “It was harder just keeping it quiet around school, because we didn’t want word to get out. … I just wanted to make sure it was special for Dad. Those kinds of moments are why we do this job.”
As the class filed into the media center, Montgomery praised them for being kind, respectful and honest students who set an example for the rest of the school.
The room was dark as Steve Phillips walked to the front of the class, and it took Chase a moment to process that his dad was standing in front of him with outstretched arms. As soon as it registered, the 7-year-old’s eyes lit up as he ran to his dad, both crying tears of joy as they reconnected.
Cheers, clapping and tears ensued from the entire room as the father and son embraced, and again as 4-year-old Jack Phillips — Chase’s younger brother — joined the huddle.
“Every time I see (videos like this), I tear up, and here I am, tearing up being a part of it,” Steve Phillips said afterward.
But there was a surprise for Steve Phillips, too. Although he’s a reserve officer, he is also a corporal at Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s Human Resources division. As he surprised his sons, Sheriff John Mina and his OCSO squad team were there to surprise him.
“Like everyone else, we’ve seen these types of reunions on the TV and social media, so to be a part of it was very special,” Mina said. “I spoke with him I think a day or two before he was deployed and told him be careful, hurry back and get back safe. Little did I know that we would be here several months later watching him get reunited with his kids. It was amazing, just to see the smile on his face and to see the smiles on his kids’ and wife’s faces, and the tears everyone had.”
‘YOU CAN’T REPLACE FAMILY’
It’s never easy for a military family when someone gets deployed. Not only were Julie Phillips and the children without Steve Phillips for nine months, but also Chase started school at Whispering Oak Elementary — his first time not attending a small, private school.
“It was Chase’s first time in a large, institutionalized school, and I literally spent the first two weeks of school walking to his classroom and crying on the sidewalk outside of the parking lot that my child would never adjust to this school,” Julie Phillips said. “It was Ms. Joy (who) would meet me out there — she was directing car-rider traffic and she would just say, ‘Mom, it’s going to be OK. Just give it time.’
“It was a lot of emotion while his dad was gone,” she said. “There were several nights when he went to bed crying and things like that, because he just missed his dad so much.”
It was a tough adjustment, but Chase and his family persevered. Stribling worked with Julie Phillips and ensured she and staff were following up on Chase’s progress. Fast-forward a couple of months, and Chase has made a beautiful transition.
“He’s made friends, he’s making good grades, he’s happy,” she said. “He jumps out of the car in the car-rider line, and he’s elated to call the school his own now.”
Being away from his family for so long was tough on Steve Phillips, too. Although technology such as FaceTime and phone calls made it easier to stay in touch with his wife and children, nothing can replace being with them in person.
“It’s really the homesickness (that’s) hard,” he said. “You’re thinking about your family back home while still trying to maintain focus on the mission at hand, so it’s kind of balancing those two. It’s that tough deployment dichotomy, as they say, of the balance of the mission and also being mindful of your family.”
He also was worried that Chase may be a little standoffish or unsure when he saw his dad again. But as Chase ran to his dad with tears in his eyes, Steve Phillips knew everything was going to be OK.
Chase said he was “super duper happy” that his dad was home and he couldn’t wait to play with him.
“He’s been gone for a very long time, and I missed him so much,” Chase said.
Steve Phillips is taking a few weeks off to be with his family before returning to work at OCSO.
“It was everything in the moment that I was looking for,” he said. “It’s hard not to get emotional. ... It’s just priceless — I mean, you go from two dimensional to three dimensional, and you just can’t replace family.”