SOUTH AMHERST — There was a special surprise awaiting seventh-grader Alyssa Montgomery when she walked into the South Amherst Middle School auditorium Thursday morning.
Her uncle, Master Sgt. Jeffrey West, had returned home from a deployment in Syria and was waiting behind a stage curtain to surprise her.
West, Alyssa’s dad, Jason Montgomery, and his mother, Deloris White, waited beforehand in a small office, hidden away from the rest of the school.
West was quiet, ready to go see his niece for the first time in about six months and unused to the attention he was received upon introduction.
Alyssa’s grandmother teared up on and off all morning. West said he would be a mess when he finally saw Alyssa.
“We’re an emotional family,” White said with a laugh. “… Alyssa just loves her uncle.”
West and his family moved to the auditorium and sat on stage behind a curtain as the seventh-graders headed into the room.
Principal Cara Gomez informed the students that there was a surprise and handed out flags that they were instructed to keep down.
“We’re just going to pretend to talk about eighth-grade stuff, OK?” she told the students.
She proceeded to talk about how they should set an example to the new students next year as Alyssa walked into the auditorium. Alyssa sat down and Gomez started to speak about a special guest who traveled from far away.
As the curtain began to be pulled back and students waved their flags, Alyssa buried her face in her hands and started to cry.
After a moment, she ran up to the stage and embraced her uncle who, as he said he would, started crying.
White handed over a box of tissues as she clutched one herself. Jason Montgomery videoed the entire moment with a smile on his face.
The eighth-grade choir sang “Proud to be an American,” and West stood up and applauded them after it was over. He thanked the audience for being there and said he was “a little jittery and a little speechless.”
“I was glad that he was here and he was alive and that he was in the United States,” Alyssa said. “He makes me laugh all the time and he always used to come over for Thanksgiving. He’s just a really great guy.”
West has served in the military for 32 years. He was once in the Army and now serves with the Air Force. West was part of Operation Desert Storm and had been stationed in Syria for nine to 12 months. It is West’s fourth deployment.
Although he had access to phone and email in Syria, which he said was better than Desert Storm, he said it’s not quite the same as seeing everyone in person.
West is on leave for about a week and, after he is finished in Syria, he said he will retire. West said he knew he wanted to surprise Alyssa on the last day of school about a month ago.
When White called to ask if that was OK, Gomez and Jennifer Butchko, the district’s public relations coordinator, decided they wanted to do more than that and planned the surprise.
The school held a reception afterward so that students could come up and thank West for his service.