POTOSI — If you were 4 or 5 years old, and your father suddenly appeared in your classroom after being gone for 16 months, how would you react?
Chances are you might be a bit confused. You’ve seen your dad on computer, but you might not remember the last time you saw him in person. Who are all those people in your room with cameras? And why are a lot of the adults wet-eyed? Why is your father crying?
The adults in the kindergarten classroom at Potosi Elementary School understood what was going on Wednesday, even if the kids didn’t.
Mitch Kress, the father of Sophia and Logan, was home after 16 months away from Potosi, at the end of nearly 10 years with the U.S. Army.
Melissa Kress, Sophia and Logan’s mother, arranged the surprise homecoming with the help of teacher Jenna Schroeder.
Mitch Kress is a sergeant in the Army who maintains electrical systems, including avionics and armaments, for Army helicopters. His nearly 10 years in the military included, in chronological order, two years in Korea, four years based in Savannah, Ga., including a year in Iraq, six months back in the U.S., and then three years in Germany, including a year at Camp Buehring in Kuwait.
“You see different cultures; you take different things in,” he said. “It was somewhat what I expected. Aviation is completely different from infantry.”
Mitch’s grandfather and uncle were veterans, and Mitch said he joined because “I wanted a different lifestyle.”
After his grandfather’s death, Mitch’s grandmother gave Mitch a 1928 $2 bill that his grandfather had carried with him through World War II. Mitch carried it with him through Iraq and Kuwait.
The most difficult thing to deal with in Kuwait was the heat, up to 140 degrees, “working on the blacktop on a dark green aircraft,” he said. The base was 2½ hours into the desert, “nothing but desert,” with “camels everywhere.”
“It was eat–sleep–work eat–sleep–work for nine months,” he said.
The most dangerous period of Mitch’s Army decade was his year in Iraq, which included occasional insurgent rockets flying over the base’s airstrip, and attacks on the base by explosives-loaded vehicles.
Mitch left for Germany in February 2010. He was home only once in those three years.
“I’ve only been to one of her birthdays,” said Mitch of his daughter. Mitch, a Potosi native, and Melissa, a Lancaster native, married on one of Mitch’s leaves.
The 16 months Mitch was away was hard on the Kresses for more than the obvious reasons. Melissa is a dispatcher with the Platteville Police Department working the day or overnight shifts.
“I’ve had to have the help of friends and family — to get the kids to school or have them home after school,” she said.
Melissa called the 16 months Mitch was gone “busy. Basically it’s not having another person here to ask, and I had to be the bad guy as far as disciplining.”
Melissa knew back in December, when Mitch left Kuwait to return to Germany, that Mitch was coming home around mid-March, and knew the specific date in January. Melissa told her children that they would be going to Dubuque Regional Airport after school to pick up Mitch.
But Mitch landed in Dubuque one day earlier and stayed overnight with his sister. Logan, meanwhile, didn’t have four-year-old kindergarten Wednesday because of screening of next year’s 4K students. So he spent the day with his older sister.
“That took a lot of work,” she said. “The kids have gone to the airport since he’s been in the military. Since he was out of the full-time Army we wanted to do something a little more special. I didn’t really know what to expect.”
Mitch arrived in Potosi late morning. Melissa made cupcakes for Sophia’s class, and at the end of a story Melissa and Sophia read about heroes, Mitch walked into the classroom.
“We told a very few select people … keep it as quiet as possible,” said Melissa. “Potosi’s a small town.”
Mitch will transfer from the Army to the National Guard after his terminal leave ends April 22. Before that happens, he will “look for a regular job now,” he said.
In the week since Mitch has been home, he’s spent quantity time with their children since Melissa has had to work.
“It’s going to take time” to get used to being home, said Mitch. “I’m used to being superstructured, so it’ll take some getting used to.”