Christmas came a week early for one sixth-grader at Elkin Elementary School, and the surprise she got had nearly everyone in tears in her classroom Thursday afternoon.
As she and her classmates were posing for what they all thought were yearbook pictures, Madison Mauldin was clueless that only seconds later her sister, U.S. Navy E3 Amanda Simmons, who just returned stateside from a ninth-month deployment, would walk in the door of the classroom to surprise her.
Mauldin, who was expecting her sister’s arrival late Thursday night, broke down in tears and the sisters embraced in a long hug as they both cried, tearing up nearly everyone in the room witnessing the reunion.
Simmons said she had planned the surprise, working in cooperation with the school faculty and her family. Along for the surprise was Simmons’ fiancé Travis Bond, who also serves in the Navy as an E4; the sisters’ parents, Frank and Stacy Mauldin; grandmother, LouAnn Roberts; and aunt, Crystal Church.
Simmons and Bond were deployed on the USS Theodore Roosevelt for nine months on a world tour. They left Norfolk, Virginia, and made stops in England, Bahrain, Dubai, Singapore, Hawaii and ending in San Diego, California.
From San Diego, the couple made a stop in Iowa to see Bond’s family before flying into Charlotte Thursday around noon and being picked up by Simmons’ parents. The family drove straight to Elkin Elementary School, sending texts to family and faculty waiting in Elkin to let them know what time to expect their arrival.
Both Simmons and Bond serve as aviation boatswain mate handlers, directing aircraft in the hangars below deck.
“It was rough,” said Simmons of the deployment, which included a seven-month stent in the Persian Gulf. “Especially when we got to gulf with 160 degree temperatures day and night.
“When we first left was when Yemen first got bad,” she explained. “We had gone through the Suez Canal so we had to go back.”
She said nothing directly happened to the crew on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, but Bond also explained to students who were given a chance to ask the soldiers question that the carrier was protected by submarines and smaller boats around them.
When asked what her favorite thing about being in the Navy was, Simmons said, “Honestly, for me, I wanted to better myself so I could better my two kids’ lives.”
For Bond, “The experience you learn and you are better prepared for things when you get out or if you stay in,” he said. “I would recommend the Navy for anyone if they want to better themselves.”
Of all of their stops, Simmons said London was her favorite.
“It has its good parts,” said Simmons, a Jonesville native and a 2007 graduate of Starmount High School, of serving. “It’s pretty when you are out to sea, but it gets old fast.”
The couple is on a 10-day leave, and will be stationed at Norfolk on the USS George Washington when they return.
“When I joined, I wanted to do 20, but this deployment really got me down, so we’ll see,” Simmons said.
Madison Mauldin took the opportunity to introduce her sister and future brother-in-law to all of the other students in the sixth-grade classrooms before school dismissed for the two-week winter break. As they went from class to class, the students took the opportunity to thank Simmons and Bond for their service.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.