By Garth Snow/

FORT WAYNE — Sparty, the Homestead High School mascot, seemed right at home on the Lafayette Meadows Elementary School stage. He gave out a few hugs to selected students and staff as part of the “Be Kind” campaign.

Media specialist Rachael Vanengelenhoven smiled and accepted a hug from the hulking mascot. The very animated foam Spartan made her curious when he made something of a dance move. “When he dabbed I thought ‘That’s something that Jesse would do,’ ” she said minutes later. “But I didn’t really think that was Jesse in there.”

Her husband of just one year, after all, was stationed in southwest Asia with the U.S. Air Force.

Then Sparty turned briefly toward Principal Jenny Fedele. He turned back toward Rachael and loosened the giant foam helmet, revealing himself as Tech Sgt. Jesse Vanengelenhoven.

Rachael gasped and stared. They hugged a few seconds for each of the six months they had been apart.

The sergeant had been scheduled to return soon, but he returned just a little earlier than expected. Fedele helped to coordinate the surprise. Rachael’s computer tech partner, Jennifer Fritsch, had kept the secret to the very end, even accompanying Rachael onto the stage when Southwest Allen County Schools communications director Stacey Fleming seemed to choose them at random from the 30-some staff members.

The children clapped and cheered. The adults clapped and cheered. Then a parade of children filed past the airman for high-fives and even a couple salutes.

The surprise return marked the end of Vanengelenhoven’s second deployment. His second and last, he said.

After helping other airmen to get situated in Asia, and after helping those airmen begin their journeys home, he was home to stay. He returns to similar work stateside, with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Grissom Air Reserve Base near Peru.

Rachael graduated from Wayne High School, Jesse from Elmhurst. They met when she was 15. They dated for seven years before being married. Jesse had been deployed once before.

“I was shocked. I’m shaking and I’m completely surprised,” Rachael said. “It’s been a long six months and I’m very happy to have him home.”

“My heart was pounding,” Jesse said. “I tripped over myself in that costume. But it’s good to be back home.”

“It was a little rough because our first anniversary I was gone,” he said. “That and the holidays, it was a little rough. But it’s worth it for big moments like this.” He said he looks forward to “just being back with family and friends, getting back to normalcy. With all the hustle and bustle going on, I’m ready to get back.”

“I’ve got a good month off before I get back to my normal job, getting people out and deployed,” he said.

Asked where they were going after the school bell, Rachael said, “We’ll get food. He hasn’t had decent food in six months.”