Daughter suprised by soldier father’s homecoming

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Hallie Baffic couldn’t believe her eyes.

After slogging through a wet cross-country course at Strong Rock the morning of Oct. 3, the ELCA seventh-grader was entering the home stretch when she saw a vaguely familiar image standing just beyond the finish line.

With the rainy conditions and the fact that she wore glasses while she ran, Hallie couldn’t be 100 percent sure - until she heard these words: “Run, Rocket. Run!”

Hallie Baffic races to greet her father who returned from the Middle East in time to meet her at the finish line. Special photo

Her eyes opened wide as that phrase confirmed that it was her father, Stephen Baffic, waiting to see his daughter for the first time in more than two months. His attire fitting with his position in the Air National Guard, he had snuck back home to surprise both his wife and daughter at the morning race.

Hallie’s arms flung open wide as she crossed the finish line, slipped in the mud and fell into her father’s arms. Dozens of spectators witnessed the kind of reunion often seen on a TV reality show but rarely in person, and not a dry eye was to be found.

Stephen Baffic had just spent 70 days stationed at an air base in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, just outside the capital city of Doha. A physician’s assistant in the ER at Piedmont Henry Hospital in civilian life, he is also a lieutenant colonel with 31 years of active military and Guard duty. The most recent of his numerous activations over the past decade with the 116th Air Control Wing out of Warner Robins saw him working as part of a flight and operations medical clinic in Qatar, flying with his senior flight surgeon in support of air crews operating out of that base.

The nature of the job and timetable for each unit’s relief can give the soldiers a window of about 20 days during which they are scheduled to return home. Stephen didn’t know until late September when his trip back to Georgia would be.

He originally told his wife Joanne he would be returning Oct. 8, and they planned to surprise Hallie at school that day. But when he wound up on a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta the morning of Oct. 2, he began concocting a more devious plan to spring on both of them.

He got ELCA middle school principal Eric Johnson on board, and as one might imagine for such an occasion, Johnson and other officials at ELCA and Strong Rock were more than happy to cooperate.

Stephen actually spent the night before the race at a Hampton Inn in McDonough and had a FaceTime session with Joanne and Hallie early Saturday morning before the race. He made it an audio-only call so they couldn’t see where he was, and with the time difference they assumed he was in Qatar at the end of his work day.

Johnson and others helped him navigate the area near the Strong Rock soccer field where the race was taking place, and he came around the corner at just the right time to render Joanne speechless for about a minute before Hallie’s big moment.

“It was probably one of the best days ever,” he said. “Both schools were amazing. Everybody was about as excited as I was.”

The joy on the faces of all family members reinforced what Stephen believes is the most overlooked aspect of military deployment.

“I’ve been in the military a long time and it’s really the families that suffer the most. People thank us for our service and that’s nice, I just go to work every day while I’m over there. My wife made everything work while I was gone, and people forget about that.”