News-Sun photo by CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY Dozens of friends and neighbors gather to welcome Tray Hill home Saturday. Hill is just back from a nine month tour in Afghanistan.
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published: Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Army specialist gets surprise welcome home
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- John and April Hill planned their son Tray's homecoming from Afghanistan with military precision. They briefed their troops, delegated essential tasks and made sure to synchronize all watches.
Operation Welcome Home Tray -- code named Surprise Party -- is to be a day their son will always remember.
The objective is to gather a large, enthusiastic crowd and create a loud, heartfelt greeting. Expected time of arrival in Sebring: 2:30 p.m.
John and Elenor Delegarde are on duty early at the house. April calls to warn them Tray's plane is running late on account of bad weather. He won't land in Orlando until about 3:30 p.m.
By 2:30 p.m. most of the greeters have arrived at the house.
Most had never met Tray, a specialist in the U.S. Army, but know about him through John and April. Those who know him are old family friends.
John Ash, for example, has been April's client for about 14 years. "I'm meeting him for the first time," Ash said, "but I know the stories and seen his photos. She talks about him all the time."
Myra Hanni has been a regular breakfast customer at the Depot for years.
"We hear all about Tray," Hanni said. "It's like we're all friends of the family."
April sneaks a text message from the car: Approaching Lake Wales. Might be another hour.
As more and more people arrive, so does the food -- a proper Operation Welcome Home feast.
Hill's father John, co-owner of the Depot Restaurant on Main Street in Avon Park, holds nothing back.
There are plates of pickles, sliced cheese, salami and shrimp; piles of meatballs and fried chicken; platters of stuffed mushrooms and bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers; dishes heaped with sandwiches and deviled eggs; fresh fruit, raw vegetables with dressing and a camouflaged cake. But Tray is still on his way.
About 4 p.m. the house is full, the excited, up-beat crowd spills out from the great room onto the pool patio and into the front yard.
It's been about an hour and a half by now. The food smells delicious.
Another secret text arrives: Go ahead and start to eat. We're about to enter Frostproof.
Dennis Stahl is assigned parking duty. His son, Keith Stahl, and daughter, Paige Denmark, grew up with Tray. "For 20 some years we watched Tray grow up, watched him go through all the things kids growing up go through," Dennis Stahl says.
Keith Stahl tells the News-Sun he was both surprised and not surprised when Tray enlisted in the Army at 28 years old.
He was surprised in the sense that Tray had never talked about a career in the military, but Stahl was not at all surprised with Tray's commitment and dedication. "Tray always had the capacity, always," Stahl says.
"I could see that. He feels passionately about what he is doing, and I'm really, really proud of him. I think he has a lot more to do in life, and he's just beginning to tap into that. It's fun to watch."
At about 4:40 p.m. another secret text message arrives: Leaving Avon Park. Get outside.
Dennis Stahl, who was an early arrival, says, "I'm starting to feel I've been waiting for this day all my life."
A car pulls into the driveway. Not the right one. The occupants are pulled out without ceremony and Stahl guides the driver over the lawn and out of the way.
"This is so cool," someone says. Flags and signs are distributed. The dozens of people line both sides of the drive.
Rich Roberts looks around and says to his wife Michele, "Tray's going to wonder, 'Who are these old people. Is this a retirement party? A remake of 'Cocoon?'"
The crowd laughs, getting giddy. An SUV comes down the road. The driver honks its horn, the large, red, white and blue crowd cheers as the car pulls into the drive. Wearing camouflage fatigues, Tray swings out of the vehicle, a look of astonishment on his face.
"How is it?" someone shouts.
"Beats Afghanistan every day," Tray says with a smile.
It is five minutes to five.
Tray (by: L Hunt - 12/26/2012)
I think this is wonderful! John and April are great people and I am so happy they had their son home for the holidays. Have a great time guys.
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