In the six years Brandon Griffith was away in California serving in the , his youngest sister, Alea, kept him in her thoughts at home in Barberton.
This Veterans Day, he was on her mind a little extra.
“I’ve been thinking about him all day today,” Alea said Friday. “… I was thinking, ‘What if I never get to see him again?'”
Little did Alea know that her brother, who she thought was nearly 2,500 miles across the country, was just steps away.
During her basketball practice at Barberton High School on Friday, Alea posed for pictures with her teammates and coach Greg Whitmer.
She thought they were capturing the moment to celebrate Whitmer’s 35 years of coaching.
“Don’t forget to smile,” said an unfamiliar voice from behind her. She smiled wider.
When she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around, though, her jaw dropped to see a face she hadn’t forgotten even after years apart.
Alea dropped her basketball when she saw Griffith, who sneaked into the gym to surprise his sister. Tears streamed down her face as the two embraced for the first time in six years, while her coach and teammates, who were just as surprised, applauded the reunion.
Griffith has been stationed in San Diego, Calif., as a staff sergeant and avionics technician with the . He served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he recently returned from a ship on the Pacific.
“Last time I was here was early 2011. She was about that tall,” said Griffith, holding a flat hand at waist-level.
Despite a nearly 20-year age gap, Griffith, 33, and Alea, 14, spent a lot of time together when he still lived in Ohio and brought his kids to the house. When he moved to California, they stayed in touch, but Alea said recently they’ve been communicating more than ever.
She wanted Griffith to come home in time for her 15th birthday on Nov. 19. He told her he couldn’t make it because of prior plans, but he didn’t tell her he’d be available the week before.
“I really had no idea I would see him, so it’s a big surprise,” Alea said through tears. “I’m shaky.”
Griffith coordinated plans with his parents, and after several flight delays, he was able to sneak into their house as Alea slept Thursday. He coordinated with Whitmer to surprise her during practice the next day.
“It’s a really cool thing to do on a cool day,” Whitmer said. “She was totally shocked, obviously, but she’s been dreaming of this. She’s a great kid.”
The distance has proved difficult for the siblings.
“It makes me pretty sad that it took so long to get back,” Griffith said. “She looks grown up.”
“It’s been really hard,” Alea said. “He’s not even recognizable.”
But in the short time they have together before he goes back Monday, the two plan to catch up over things that remain unchanged after all these years — like Alea’s natural game of golf.
“She’ll probably beat me,” Griffith said.
Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2016 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) — at www.ohio.com
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