Over the past year, Pfc. Dakota Carrington drove an Army truck while based at Camp Casey in South Korea, but while on leave Wednesday he went on four secret missions across Blount County.

He surprised his mom, Melissa, an art teacher at Montvale Elementary School; brother, Garrett, at Union Grove Middle School; his sister, Tori, at Middlesettlements Elementary; and finally, brother, Joey, at William Blount High School.

Joey confessed there was a leak: He saw a text between their father, Paul, and Dakota about whether the big brother had arrived in Seattle, so he knew the homecoming they had looked forward to for a year would be soon.

Still, Joey didn’t immediately make the connection when he returned to English class after a trip to the office and saw a man in an Army combat uniform sitting at his desk beside the door.

“I though he was just another recruiter,” the junior said.

Then Dakota stood up, said “What up, bruh?” and grabbed him in a combination hug and headlock.

As everyone waited for Joey to return from the office — a visit administrators manufactured so Dakota, school leaders and the media could sneak into the portable classroom — teacher Jamie Mullins told the Army private, “He talks about you all the time.”

An Air Force Junior ROTC cadet at William Blount, Joey plans to follow his big brother into the Army, hoping for a career as a welder.

Melissa said she and her husband tell their children they have three choices: “They can continue their education, join the military and serve their country, or be an adult.”

A 2015 graduate of William Blount, Dakota tried college and work before joining the Army. “I like this one the best,” he said Wednesday with a grin.

The family has kept in touch with Facebook messenger and video, but the 13-hour time difference is challenging.

Dakota left South Korea around 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, and arrived in Seattle around 9:30 a.m. the same day, because of the time change. Friends picked him up from McGhee Tyson Airport after midnight Wednesday, Sept. 5.

As the family prepared to leave WBHS for lunch — Dakota was looking forward to “a real American burger” — Melissa wiped away a few more tears of joy and confessed to her eldest that when he left last year for South Korea, “I didn’t cry until you were on the plane.”

Watching 10-year-old Tori in the office with Dakota as he signed out of the school, Melissa said, “She won’t leave his side the whole time he’s home.”

Then as they headed to separate vehicles, the mom turned to Joey, a 16-year-old who had driven to school the first time that day, and told her son, “Drive carefully.”

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