NORTH RICHLAND HILLS – Tucked inside an empty classroom at Green Valley Elementary, the school’s new mascot for a day is wriggling into a bright green furry alligator costume.
“I got this,” said a muffled Marla Carney from underneath the head of the costume.
After nine long months, Marla is back. The Army Reservist was deployed to Taji, Iraq, last year. She returned stateside after the holidays, but just in time to surprise her 5- and 7-year-old daughters at school their first week back after the break.
“They still think I’m at Fort Hood,” she said, letting out a chuckle. “I almost let it slip last night on the phone.”
Following a bout with the flu, a few white lies, and a little help from her husband, Julien, the mother of three worked it out with the district to surprise her daughters at school. A second surprise reunion would happen later in the afternoon with the couple’s 2-year-old daughter.
“I’m excited, I’m nervous, just super excited to see them,” she said. “I missed numerous birthdays, I missed every holiday imaginable this year. Now I get to re-do everything and start over.”
In full costume, the 29-year-old was ushered down the hallway to the all-school assembly in the cafeteria. Once through the doors, the room erupted into cheers for Gator.
Marla stood at the front of the room, waving her arms and bouncing along to the program.
“I just kept laughing,” she said. “I could see her (Carmi) the whole entire time.”
The sisters were called up to the front to talk about the topic kindness, and share how they help their dad while their mom is away. Then came the big moment.
When Marla finally took off the mascot head and revealed herself, and the room erupted again, the girds didn’t even recognize her at first.
“It was so nice,” Marla said. “I didn’t want to let them go.”
It took the Carney’s oldest daughter, Carmi, only “two blinks” before she figured out her mom was standing there. But once they knew, they wouldn’t leave her side.
“I’ve been through all of their emotions all year of them missing her, and then for them anticipating her (return),” said Julien Carney who had been hiding at the back of the cafeteria during the assembly. “Actually seeing it, was exciting.”
After posing for photos, plus more hugs and kisses, the family was escorted back to an empty classroom where they could visit while the students returned to their classes. A family dinner was planned for that evening at Cheesecake Factory that had the girls yelping for joy.
For now, the Carney’s will get some much needed leave time together.
“You don’t know how much you miss it until you don’t have it,” Marla said.