State Rep. Doug Collins’ children were checked out of school by a surprise visitor Thursday: their dad.
After serving four months as a chaplain in Iraq, Collins, who returned late Wednesday, surprised each of his children at their schools to take them home for some long-awaited family time.
One by one, Collins stopped by each of his children’s schools — beginning with his 10-year-old son, Cameron, at Mount Vernon Elementary — to scoop them up and hold them for the first time since early September.
The youngest Collins did not even wait to put his popsicle down before jumping into his fathers’ arms.
"He’s just grown up — he’s grown on up," Collins said after seeing Cameron for the first time in months. "It’s good to see him."
With Cameron in tow, Collins moved on to North Hall Middle School to pick up his 12-year-old son, Copelan, and then to the high school for yet another reunion with his daughter, Jordan.
The reunion was a tearful one for Jordan, 16, whom he described as "daddy’s little girl." Collins usually is the one to take wheelchair-using Jordan to school, but while he was in Iraq, his wife Lisa took over that responsibility.
"She and I have a real close relationship," Collins said. "She sent me some of the most sweetest things and some of those probably tugged at my heart the most."
Collins had been serving in Iraq with an Air Force Reserve unit since Sept. 4. While he was gone, his children’s only connection to him were phone calls and e-mails that came once or twice a week.
In his absence, Collins’ children had their own ways of holding his memory close. Copelan wore his father’s dog tags, while Jordan kept up with his weekly columns in The Times.
It was Collins’ work in Iraq that kept his children close to him, he said.
"One of the more amazing things about Iraq is, where I was, we dealt with a lot of kids and it always would bring me back to mine," Collins said. "One of the nights I worked in the hospital. As a dad, that was always one of the harder things, because immediately, I would think about mine."
In four months’ time, all of Collins’ children changed in some way, he said.
Copelan had a deeper voice Thursday than he did when his father left in September. The seventh-grader was wearing the dog tags when his father stepped in the door of his classroom.
"When I left him he was 5-3 about 90 pounds; he’s now 5-5, a hundred and something," Collins said. "Not that he was little when I left, but now he’s growing on up."
But Collins said he expected his children to be somewhat different when he returned.
"I’d played it in my mind many times," he said.
Collins said he planned to spend the upcoming holiday weekend resting with his children and wearing civilian clothes.
"We probably won’t do a whole lot of anything except just piddle around," Collins said.
But he will have duties to perform today in the state House, where he will be sworn in for his second term. The legislature session began Monday.
Collins said his family needs the time to recuperate as much as he does.
"They’ve been through a lot," Collins said. "These four right here have lived through their own war; they’ve been through a lot."
After an initial long embrace, Cameron Collins said he planned to do what any child who had not seen a parent in four months would want when he first got his father home.
"Maybe we need a little talk," Cameron said.
But later, Cameron had a bigger request of his father. "Hey Dad, we can finally use those fireworks we’ve been saving?" he said.