— -- One family got an early Christmas present better than anything Santa could have brought them.
Rob Stella, who has been with the Navy for 23 years, returned home from his final deployment on Dec. 5, just in time to make it into the holiday photo. The only catch, however, is that his children didn’t know he was in it.
“It couldn’t have gone more perfectly. Santa was pretty helpful. It was a good time,” Stella, who had been deployed in Bahrain for a year, told ABC News of his special surprise. “I was supposed to fly back from the Middle East on the 4th, but I got bumped from that and was pushed back a few days so my kids didn’t think I’d be home. On Thanksgiving Day though, we found out that myself and my guys on my command would still be able to make that flight, so my wife knew but my kids didn’t.”
Prior to his arrival, his wife had spoken with the mall’s manager to help ensure Stella could hide strategically behind Santa’s perch to pop out at exactly the right time.
“I was hidden behind the bench as people were getting their photos taken with Santa,” he explained. “I could hear my kids and I know their voice, and the signal was going to be ‘1, 2, 3’ for the lady taking the picture, and then I’d know they would be looking at her so I could pop up and be in the background.”
The sneaky dad was trying to stay in his kids’ blind spots but his younger son heard people laughing and couldn’t figure out why. When he looked behind Santa to look at his older brother, he caught a glimpse of his father.
“The gig was up then,” said Stella. “My youngest son came over to give me a hug and my daughter broke down crying.”
The sentimental homecoming captured in this video came just one day before his daughter Maddie’s 10th birthday.
“Her reaction just makes my heart melt,” the loving dad explained. “You feel so bad when you have to leave and you feel like you’re breaking their heart. But after that time away and getting to surprise them like this, it almost makes it worth its while. The hardest thing I’ve done in years is telling them I’m going away.”
Now that their dad is home, everything else on their Christmas lists pale in comparison.
“They’re beyond happy to have me home for Christmas,” said Stella. "She [Maddie] wants to show me off to everybody. She’s at my side every moment of the day to make sure I’m not going anywhere.”