For about a week Sgt. Michael Sarkkinen made special plans to see his family.
Sarkkinen, a Summerville resident, enlisted in the National Guard when he was 17. He is now a 27-year-old married father of two. For over a year he has been in serving in Afghanistan and has not seen his family since he left.
Sarkkinen's unit returned home May 14 but he was unable to return home because he had injured his foot while overseas and got delayed for medical clearance. He struggled to schedule a flight home to come to his 5-year-old son Anthony's kindergarten graduation at Beech Hill Elementary, held on May 23.
Sarkkinen got his mother-in-law, Antoinette Ponton, involved and made a plan to come home and surprise his family at Beech Hill.
For the past year, Ponton said, things have been hard on Michael's family – his wife and high school sweetheart Ashley, son Anthony and 3-year-old daughter Emily. This is his second tour – he first left for Iraq for a year when Anthony was two weeks old.
Ponton stays very close to her daughter and grandchildren.
“I visit them every day,” she said. “We spend a lot of time with them. I think it's been harder on Anthony – for a little boy with his dad gone.”
Planning the surprise visit started falling into place when Ponton's other daughter, Autumn Ponton, drove to Columbia to pick up Sarkkinen while Anthony went on to participate in his kindergarten graduation. After the festivities his mom, sister and grandmother joined Anthony in his classroom to snack on treats and interact with his classmates. His teacher Haley Cabaniss worked with front office personnel and school administrators to make sure Sarkkinen's visit was kept a secret.
“They are going to be shocked,” Ponton said as she waited on her son-in-law to arrive that morning.
At 10:30 a.m. Sarkkinen made it to Beech Hill. Everyone in Anthony's class was asked to close their eyes – including his mom Ashley. When she opened them she saw her husband standing before with a bouquet of red roses. Anthony rushed across the room to meet his dad. The family grouped together for teary-eyed hugs.
Ashley Sarkkinen was very surprised by the visit. “I had no idea he was coming home,” she said, adding the past year has been tough on the family. “We moved into a new house and stuff while he was gone.”
Michael Sarkkinen said he was excited to finally have some family time.
“It's great to be back home,” he said.