SOUTHINGTON — As he walked into a small conference room in the office area of the high school shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Army Staff Sgt. Michael Howes was greeted with a standing ovation and applause by members of the town’s Veterans Committee.
“We’re glad you’re home,” one said.
“Thank you for your service,” chimed in another.
While Howes took in the support and love from his fellow veterans, he was preparing to complete a mission he’s been waiting to accomplish for months: to surprise his step daughter and daughter after being on tour in Djibouti for 11 months. It was a task that had Howes and his wife Izabela Howes’ stomachs in knots.
The first to be surprised was Mike Howes’ stepdaughter Jasmyne Engman, a freshman at Southington High School.
“She has no clue,” said Izabela Howes, who had been “hiding” her husband in a local hotel since Saturday to make sure the secret didn’t get out.
As a cover, the Veterans Committee walked into Jasmyne’s civic class, claiming they had a presentation to make.
Moments later, high school principal Martin Semmel peeked out the door and said they forgot one of the veterans in the hallway. Then Mike Howes walked into the classroom and pointed at Jasmyne who was in the last seat in the second row of desks. She buried her face into her hands with tears streaming down and hopped out of her seat to hug her stepfather. It looked as though the embrace could never end.
“You guys aren’t funny,” Jasmyne said laughing, crying, and hugging her stepfather at the same time.
As she cried tears of joy on his arm, Mike Howes rubbed her back gently and gave her a kiss on the side of her head.
They walked out of the classroom with huge smiles on their faces.
“I’m so happy right now,” Jasmyne said. “I feel like this is a moment out of a book or movie or something…”
“This is a once in a lifetime type deal, something I’ll never forget,” Mike Howes said after surprising Jasmyne.
The mission wasn’t over yet.
Next stop was Flanders School to reunite with Mike Howes’ 8-year-old daughter Madison Howes. Madison and her fellow third-grade classmates were set up in the gym shortly before 11 a.m. Children were reading books together and one of Madison’s teachers asked her to come up to the chair in front of the class to read some of her book.
“Excuse me we have one more photographer coming in,” one of the teachers said.
A door to the gym opened and in walked Madison’s father. Madison’s jaw dropped as she paused for a moment looking at her father walking toward her. Once she realized he was really there, she sprang up shouted “Daddy!” and ran across the gym in her light up sneakers into his arms. She was still hanging onto her book.
Just like earlier in the morning with Jasmyne, the two embraced and cried together, both happy to be reunited.
For nearly a year, Madison and Jasmyne have only been able to see Mike Howes through video chatting.
Last school year Madison’s second-grade class wrote letters to Mike Howes’ unit to keep in touch. Mike Howes, a 1994 Southington graduate, went on three tours before going to Djibouti with the Army Reserve. He was previously deployed to Iraq and Kosovo.
“It was nice to get all your letters,” Mike Howes said to Madison’s third-grade class while getting choked up. “Those letters meant a lot to us.”
To cope with her father being gone for so long, Madison carries around a Daddy Doll that Mike Howes made for her out of a small pillow with his face on it so he could be by her side all the time. Having the real thing, though, was just what Madison had been hoping for.
“I didn’t want him to leave because I love him so much,” Madison said crying as she buried her face into her father’s shoulder.
“She just has so much love for him,” Izabela Howes said. “She’s Daddy’s little girl.
Now that he’s home Izabela Howes said there will be “no more I miss Daddy tears.”