Navy officer serving in Djibouti pays family surprise Christmas visit

Aberdeen, Md. — An unexpected gift from overseas weighing several hundred pounds arrived a week before Christmas for a Maryland family.

Minutes into a Dec. 18 impromptu Christmas party in the St. Joan of Arc parish hall in Aberdeen, the father of St. Joan of Arc School third-grader Mia Benitez and Maddox, a kindergartner, came striding out of the kitchen.

Navy Reserve Petty Officer Jesus Benitez was supposed to be in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, where he is in the middle of a yearlong deployment. In early November, however, he informed his wife, Deanna, that he had been granted 15 days leave, a development they kept hidden from their children.

She thought Maddox "might not crack a smile" and that Mia would be "goofy" happy upon his arrival. Both appeared overwhelmed.

A few minutes after the reunion, before the two held hands on a short walk, Maddox said he was looking forward to playing Super Mario Brothers with his father, who has considerable IT skills.

Benitez, 45, had been separated previously from his family during summer camp, but nothing like this. The four bonded for a week last June in Norfolk, Va., where he was undergoing training.

On July 1, he left for Camp Lemmonier, a U.S. Navy base in Djibouti, to provide tactical communications and satellite networks, he said, "for our partner African nations that enable them to take the fight to terrorists."

Benitez, originally from Harlingen, Texas, has been a reservist since 1996, when he completed six years on active duty. He met his wife through their jobs with Southwest Airlines. She is a Bel Air native who grew up in St. Margaret Parish; the family resides in Abingdon and worships at St. Francis de Sales Parish.

"There is a lot happening in Africa," he said, "that people don't hear about."

The children did not expect to see him in person until June 4. The four had Skyped as recently as the Dec. 13-14 weekend, and the children were resigned to doing the same Christmas Day.

It wasn't the first such homecoming at St. Joan of Arc School, where approximately one in four students come from families where the parents are active or retired military, and many more parents are civilian employees at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

Fr. William Franken, pastor, joined principal Virginia Bahr, teachers and staff in welcoming the grades that include Mia and Maddox to the parish hall. Sequestered out of view, Benitez got a glimpse of his daughter and admitted to being anxious.

He had been on the road for some 26 hours, having taken a commercial flight out Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport at 7 p.m. (11 a.m. in Baltimore) Dec. 17, then driving a rental car from Dulles International in Virginia, near Washington, to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where he connected with his wife.

"There are a bunch of gifts for him under the Christmas tree, pajamas, and an Oriole mug and T-shirt," Deanna told the Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan newspaper, the day before her husband's arrival. "Mia thinks we're putting them in a box Christmas Eve and they'll get to her dad the next day."

[Paul McMullen is managing editor of the Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore archdiocese.]

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