SHAMONG (WABC) --Two siblings were reunited in a heartwarming surprise at a New Jersey school after the eldest came back from a three-year deployment in Japan.
"Sort of like an explosion," little Ryleigh Gardner said. "Cause it just blew up my mind."
Pigtailed and with roses in her arms, Gardner had a smile that can make a grown-up teary.
"I never knew he would actually come here," she said.
Ryleigh's surprise came at Shamong Elementary School, with the children gathered cross-legged on the gym floor. Backstage, Ryleigh's older brother, Navy pay officer second class Frank "Tommy" Schaffer was waiting to surprise his little sister.
"It's pretty rough, you know, being away from family, especially a younger sibling," he said. "You know, being away so long, you just strive to get that connection back."
Ryleigh never lost the connection.
A school project got the children thinking about a role model in their young lives, and Ryleigh chose her big brother. Still hidden behind the curtain, Tommy read her words while an unsuspecting Ryleigh listened.
"As long as I can remember, my brother has always been there for me," she wrote.
Then the brother she never expected to see came out with flowers, hugs and tears.
"When he popped out, it was like, wow, I can't believe he's here," she said.
Neither could Ryleigh and Tommy's mother, DeAnn. Military service is a shared family sacrifice.
"I know my little one misses him, and I just, you know, really happy that they're together," she said.
So are Ryleigh and Tommy.
"You know, we're going to out, hang out together, just me and her," he said. "So it will be real good."
Now, no one can stop smiling.