U.S. Army Pfc. Anthony Barreto came marching home again -- and shocked his mom so much she cried.
"What are you doing here?!" his mom, Melissa Ochoa, screamed as she jumped up from the booth at Black Bear Diner. Mother and son hugged for a long minute. Other patrons realized what was happening. They stood and clapped. A lot of eyes were wet and throats were tight.
"Oh my goodness!" Ochoa said. "You guys tricked me!"
They embraced in front of a poster that read "Uncle Sam Wants You."
Derek Augustine and Dana Henrickson, who had been serving the booth before the mother-and-son reunion, both said, "Welcome back."
The secret celebration was planned by the soldier's wife, Katrina, and arranged by his mother-in-law, Kathi Gant, whose daughter has been married to Barreto for three years. "I wanted to do something to surprise her," Gant said of Ochoa. "We are her family."
"I saw what other (Army) wives had done for homecomings," said Katrina. She smiled and added, "It went good."
Barreto showed up in his ICUs (improved combat uniform), Screaming Eagle Airborne patch and desert boots Friday morning at the restaurant. That was one full day ahead of when he'd told his mom -- who hadn't seen him in nearly two years -- that he'd be back in Merced.
The Buhach Colony High graduate has been at Fort Knox since the end of last year after a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. His unit was stationed in a province near the border with Pakistan, scene of hundreds of Taliban rocket and mortar attacks in recent years. "When it got hot, we'd get hit three or four times a day," he said.
Barreto pulled perimeter security duty and did a dozen other jobs as they arose during his tour. He signed up at 18 and wants to make the Army a career -- "as of now."
He and his future wife had known each other three years in high school when they got married. They lived with Gant and her husband, Wade, until Anthony enlisted and left for basic training. The couple have a son, Elijah, 3, and a daughter, Alexia, 21 months.
After basic at Fort Jackson, S.C., and artillery school at Fort Sill, Okla., he landed at Fort Knox, Ky. Three weeks after Katrina joined him, he was shipped overseas. A Merced native, Katrina Barreto wasn't ready to huddle in the basement of their house on the base during tornado alerts. So in May last year, Gant flew to Kentucky and drove her back here.
"I'm the kind of person who doesn't even like to go to Modesto," Gant said. Yet last September she and Ochoa drove Katrina back to Kentucky in a Mitsubishi Galant so she'd have a car on the base.
After Barreto got to Afghanistan, "I was real excited." But as the weeks and months wore on, "it got a little old." When he was in the war zone, the Barretos talked every day via Skype. She sent him packages filled with Mexican candy, beef jerky and socks.
Ochoa, a single mom who has raised three sons, helps care for disabled people. She and Gant may go for weeks without seeing each other, but they text and talk nearly every day.
When Katrina Barreto decided to surprise her mother-in-law, Gant plotted their strategy. She told Ochoa that everybody would meet Saturday for a barbecue. Last Monday she talked with a manager at the Black Bear to see if the curtains on one side of the restaurant could be lowered so Ochoa -- who would already be in a booth -- couldn't see her son coming up the sidewalk to the entrance.
Manager Scott Martin was pleased the families picked the Black Bear. "It just has a comfortable feeling to it," Gant said.
Baretto is on leave until April 15. Then they'll head back to Fort Knox. He thinks his next duty station will be Fort Carson, Colo. "No tornadoes there?" his wife asked.
After the hugs and tears Friday, the families settled down to breakfast. Ochoa talked to her grandchildren. There was a lot to catch up on. And even more to look forward to.
Welcome home, soldier. Thank you for your service.
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.