This story first posted in September 2013.
Jennifer Jimenez was in her cleaning clothes when she got the call at her home in FishHawk Ranch. It was her husband, calling today, "I'm at the airport, pick me up." The call came Sept. 18, a day earlier than Jennifer Jimenez had expected and, for her husband, Esteban, about 48 hours after he first boarded a plane for his journey home to Tampa.
With the couple's youngest son by her side, Jennifer Jimenez met her husband at the airport, then drove to the MacDill Air Force Base, where Esteban Jiminez dropped off his weapons.
Next stop: FishHawk Creek Elementary School, where the couple's two daughters, fourth-grader Analisa and kindergartener Isbella, were summoned to the office for an early dismissal.
They had expected to see their father, who left for Afghanistan in February, home tomorrow, not today. They also didn't expect to see a group of reporters and photographers waiting to document the five-member family's full homecoming in the main office of the girls' elementary school.
But there everybody was, with FishHawk Creek principal Pam Bush looking on, as first Analisa, then Isabella, saw with their own eyes their father home from war.
"I feel like I'm going to throw up," Jennifer Jimenez said minutes earlier, about her nerves, as she signed for her children to leave school early on the computer in the main office. At the airport, she added, she was "excited, happy, relieved and surprised" to see her husband, who flew home in street clothes, on a regular jet, as he walked toward her at Tampa International Airport.
"He called me when he was at the airport, I was still in my cleaning clothes, cleaning the house," Jennifer Jimenez said. "He said, 'I'm home.' I said, 'You're where?' He said, 'I'm at the aiport, come get me.' "
Esteban Jimenez recounted his journey, which began about 48 hours earlier at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. From there, Jimenez flew to Manas, Kyrgyzstan and then to Germany. His first stop in the United States: Bangor, Maine. After a connecting flight in South Carolina, he traveled home to Tampa as a regular passengar on a regular flight wearing regular clothes.
"It was worth it," he said, as he nevertheless admitted that it was difficult to leave behind his fellow soldiers.
"That's your sense of honor and pride," said Esteban Jimenez, 34, a captain with the U.S. Marine Corps, special operations command. "You want to be there for them and with them."
At home, though, those allegiances quickly crossed over into Jimenez' role as a father to three children.
His son was happy to see him. He expected his older daughter to show surprise, then tears of joy. He expected, too, that his younger daughter would be a bit overwhelmed, and hold back on her emotions, at least with so many people around.
"Their reactions were what I expected," Jimenez said.
"This is a wonderful moment, very heart-warming," said Bush said about the events unfolding in her school's main office, after she noted that about 15 percent of the school's 1,041 students have a federal dependent status.
As for the Jimenez homecoming, she added, "It was so exciting to see the looks on their faces."
Esteban Jiminez said he missed most "the daily interaction" with his children. As for the family's most immediate plans, Jimenez said: "We'll probably have ice cream."
Apparently that would suit Analisa just fine, who said in a quick interview after seeing her dad that she was expecting to be going out with him very shortly. She was given a t-shirt to wear over school clothes. It read: "It's been over 200 days since I hugged my daddy, today I'm taking him home."
"The last time we went somewhere we went to the bowling alley and then we went to Dairy Queen," she said.
Sounds like a plan.