VHS helps airman with Joyful Reunion

Maddie and Tyler McLean were watching a recorded message from their stepdad, Air Force Master Sgt. Philip Brack, in the cafeteria at The Villages High School on Wednesday when Brack suddenly appeared to surprise his children. Brack spent the last 31/2 months stationed in United Arab Emirates.

Three and a half months away from family can seem like a lifetime.  That’s why Air Force Master Sgt. Philip Brack, of Ocala, wanted to do something special to show his children he was back home from serving overseas in the U.S. military. He got help from a school that values its veterans and military service members as much as The Villages community.  Maddie and Tyler McLean thought Wednesday was a normal day at The Villages High School, but little did they know, Brack was waiting for them in the cafeteria during lunchtime.  Brack, who had returned from service in the United Arab Emirates, originally wanted to surprise his children in their classrooms, but school officials wanted to do something a little bigger.

Darrin Bevis, vice principal at VHS, helped coordinate the surprise. He was first contacted by the students’ mother, Kathy Lee Brack, who suggested a surprise.

As the plan began to unfold, Communications Academy instructor Megan Licciardello produced a short video Wednesday morning of Philip giving a message to his children.

As students gathered in the cafeteria for their normally scheduled lunch period, Maddie and Tyler were asked to sit in two chairs facing a projection screen.

“Mr. Bevis, I’m so scared,” Maddie said to him, confused about what was about to happen. “I don’t like all the attention on me.”

Tyler, a 16-year-old junior, said he thought they were in trouble.

“It was nerve-wracking because we didn’t really know what was going to happen,” he said.

Students surrounding the siblings started guessing excitedly what could happen, and then Philip appeared on the screen to give a message to his children.

 “Hey Maddie and Tyler, it’s Phillip from Al Dhafra Air Base. Just saying ‘Hey.’ I miss you guys like crazy,” he said in the video. “Just wanted to say that I’m very proud, and I miss you guys, and I appreciate what you’ve done with your mom and everything back home. I love you, and hopefully I’ll see you soon.”

The video ended, and the two students sat there smiling. Wearing his military uniform, Philip then walked toward them from behind the corner, and everyone started cheering.

Tyler jumped up and embraced his stepfather, and Maddie sat there holding her face in disbelief.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Maddie, a 14-year-old freshman. “They said he would come back in November. It was surprising.”

“Their reactions were pretty priceless,” Philip said. “It was so emotional, so crazy. It’s overwhelming.”

Looking around the room and hearing all the cheering, Bevis said, “This is why I wanted to do this.”

Kathy Lee then came out from around a corner with her two sons, 8-year-old Ethan Brack and 1-month-old Hudson Brack.

Philip surprised Ethan at his school in Lakeland on Tuesday, and he met his 1-month-old son when his wife picked him up in Jacksonville Monday night.

Even their dog was surprised when Philip returned to his home Tuesday night.

“I’m happy to have him home,” Kathy Lee said. “He’s our rock. He holds us together.”

“I’m excited to come back to normalcy and help my wife with the baby,” Philip added. “Being home with the family is everything.”

Before his next deployment, he plans to spend time with the family, and Maddie said she is looking forward to running with him again.

“He is my running buddy,” she said. “I was pretty sad when he left because it was like my best friend was gone. It’s good that he’s back.”

As a veteran who served in the Army for nine years, Bevis understood the importance of coming home.

“I know what it’s like to be away from family for a while,” Bevis said. “I wanted to help make this special for them.”

The school is part of The Villages, a community with a large population of veterans and a place where veterans are strongly supported and celebrated.

The Villages is home to the nation’s second-highest percentage of former members of the U.S. armed forces, with more than 19,000 veterans who constitute 16% of the population in The Villages metropolitan statistical area. One in every six residents has served his or her country, and camaraderie among these veterans makes American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake the largest in the world.

Staff writer Rachel Stuart can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5390, or rachel.stuart@thevillagesmedia.com.