By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Aleena Valentin’s fourth birthday was expected to be tough because Dad was away, and he’s been away 14 months serving with the U.S. Marines in Okinawa.
All she wanted for her present yesterday, she told her mom, Jessica, was to have her dad home. But by the time she got to the Passos Avante preschool, she was resigned.
“I guess my dad isn’t coming for my birthday,” she told her teachers.
So it might be understandable that Aleena looked stunned when Gunnery Sgt. Ricardo Valentin walked in the door just as the birthday girl had settled down at a cafeteria table with her classmates to enjoy some birthday cake.
“Look who it is,” her teachers said as some onlookers wiped away tears.
Smiling, Aleena took a moment before leaving the table and running into her father’s arms. After that, it was a long time before she let go.
The birthday surprise was a complex operation run mostly by Mom. Dad actually came home last Friday, but hid out until the party, which wasn’t easy on him.
“I wanted to go ... and see my girl. I just wanted to pick her up,” he said. Meanwhile, he was able to see, for the first time, his 7-month-old son, Christian. He praised his wife, who had arranged a birthday party his daughter won’t soon forget. The Valentins have been married six years.
“This is the gift she wanted,” Jessica explained. “It’s been really hard for her.”
Aleena was given a choice of several impressive birthday trips, but shook her head at each one.
“I don’t want to do anything,” she told her mom. “I just want to see my dad.” Over the months she has seen her father electronically on Skype — the same system the sergeant used to watch the birth of his son.
“That was the best we could do,” he said. It’s not the same, obviously, as holding his children in his arms.
When school director Joanne Pantapas heard that the meeting had been delayed for the party, she exclaimed, “We would have done this on Saturday.” She noted that all the kids seemed a little shocked by the attention. Nothing like this happened at Passos Avante in her 15 years there, she noted.
Jessica expressed gratitude for cooperation from the school, which charges tuition but is a public school, part of the Peabody system housed at the South School. “They really helped me a lot,” she said, explaining that teachers took on a role that has almost made them co-parents.
Sgt. Valentin flew directly from Okinawa to Washington, D.C. — 14 hours in the air. “I didn’t think they had a flight that long,” he sighed. After 30 days he will return to Okinawa and a tour of duty that ends in December.
Before the big reveal, Valentin was interviewed by newspaper and TV reporters. A 13-year veteran of the Marines, he served two seven-month tours in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, in 2010 and 2012.
“It was a life-changing experience,” he said.
But this was a daunting experience in its own way. “I am extremely nervous,” he admitted before Aleena arrived. “I’ve never felt like this before.”
That all seemed to fade once he had his daughter in his arms.
“When I picked her up, I couldn’t believe how heavy she was,” he marveled. “... I’m very happy. And blessed to be here.”