Kindergartners at Alcoa Elementary School have been learning about veterans this week, and when teacher Monica Chapman asked them to name the branches of the military on Wednesday, Avery Lanning said his dad is in the Army.

Minutes later as Chapman read the story “Hero Dad” to the children sitting on a carpet, Avery’s dad slipped in and sat beside him.

Private Colton Hill left for training the day after Easter, and when Avery realized he was finally home, hugs and tears followed.

Hill already had pulled off another homecoming surprise at Fairview Elementary to greet Avery’s sister, Autumn Lanning. The preschooler was making paper pilgrims when Hill arrived on Wednesday, and she ran to great him, the dad said.

Toddler Aiden Lanning was along for his siblings’ surprises, with mom, Ashlee Hill and the kids’ grandparents.

The soldier fielded questions from Avery’s classmates, such as why he has an American flag patch on his uniform and whether service members use Nerf guns for training. He explained that he doesn’t jump out of airplanes, but he does work with Chinook helicopters.

Then Avery held Colton’s hand as they walked to pick up his backpack and jacket before stopping at a conference room to answer a few questions from a reporter.

Hill left for Basic Combat Training in April, and some family members attended his graduation from Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for his occupational specialty on Tuesday. The 2016 Maryville High School graduate said he left as soon as he was able, at midnight, for the nine-hour drive home.

His father, Gary Hill, said Colton is the fourth generation in his family to join the military, and Avery has Marines for grandparents on both sides of the family.

Asked what he’s looking forward to doing most, Avery said, “I just want him to stay.”

Family time is the only plan Colton and Ashlee have made for his two-week leave. After that there’s more excitement on the horizon for the family. A new little brother is due Dec. 5.

Walking from Alcoa Elementary to the parking lot, it was Autumn’s turn to hold Colton’s hand, walking in a pink jacket beside his Army Combat Uniform.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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