By Lora Scripps
When 8-year-old Jackson Long, a first-grader at Elkmont High School, caught a glimpse of his dad Wednesday on the playground, he ran so fast into his arms he lost a tennis shoe.
It was no ordinary day for Jackson or his 12-year-old brother Braden. It marked a homecoming 11 months in the making.
Their dad, Sgt. Michael Long, returned home Wednesday after a tour of duty in Qatar with 116 other soldiers with the 152nd Military Police company of the Alabama Army National Guard unit based in Hartselle.
While the boys hugged Michael for the first time in nearly a year, their classmates waved American flags to welcome him home.
Michael’s wife, Melissa, said Braden and Jackson knew their dad was returning, but didn’t expect him until dinner. “They were surprised,” she said. “Both are very happy and were glued to him all afternoon.”
“I’m absolutely excited to have my husband home,” she said. “It’s been a long 11 months.”
Michael admits the feeling that came over him when he returned was “hard to put into words.” He described seeing his wife — whom he said is just as gorgeous as the day they met — like waking up in the morning after their honeymoon. “She is the most beautiful woman in the world,” he said.
The happiness Michael felt when he saw his sons left him without words. “It’s so unexplainable,” he said.
He described his youngest son — an extrovert who has grown two inches since his dad left – running up to him yelling, “Oh daddy! I missed you. I love you.”
His oldest son, who has grown an inch, was a little more reserved in his approach. Braden walked up to his dad and put one arm around him and gave him a look that said it all.
The community of Elkmont also celebrated Michael’s arrival.
Elkmont teachers Alicia Bates and Tamara Holt organized the soldier’s homecoming at the school.
He arrived at 2:15 p.m. to first-graders waving homemade American flags with words of welcome written on each one. “They were waving and grinning real big,” Michael said.
“Our community went all out,” Melissa added. “They did an outstanding job.”
When the family arrived home, American flags lined the sidewalk. Yellow ribbons and banners honoring Michael’s sacrifice decked out the home and a “Welcome Home Michael” sign tacked to one side of the garage greeted the family.
“It’s beautiful,” Michael said. “I had a few friends wave me down and stop me on the side of the road. They hugged my neck and welcomed me home. We live in a great town.”
“I love this town and this community,” Melissa added. “They really welcomed him home.”
“Soldiers can’t do what they do without strong family support,” Michael said. He described his wife as a great Christian woman who is very talented and wise. “She kept me rooted and grounded over here,” he said.
To Michael the Elkmont community is a part of that family. He said friends mowed grass, picked up his boys and brought Melissa for girls-night-out while he was away.
“It’s great to see the people we love stepping up and taking care of Melissa and the boys for me,” he said.
Now that Michael is home, the Long family plans to get back into their normal routine. “He missed all their (his sons) ball seasons,” Melissa said. “But, he will get to be there for the end of baseball season. They have really missed him.”
Michael, an ordained minister, is hopeful this was his last deployment. He plans to obtain his psychology degree and take a career as a Christian counselor.
“I’m going to finish my schooling and hopefully live life as normal,” he said.
Friends of Elkmont have left Michael many messages since he arrived home. “We appreciate your service and we salute your family for their service as well,” one friend said. “Good job soldier. God bless you and watch over you all.”