June 16, 2013 at 10:50 AM ET
Father’s Day was still 10 days away, but Chris Victoria of the U.S. Marines didn’t want to wait any longer to claim his gift.
Victoria had not seen his oldest daughter, Alycia, in 2 ½ years while being stationed at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., when he returned home to Augusta, Ga., to surprise Alycia by picking her up from summer camp on June 6.
“It was really amazing,’’ Victoria told TODAY.com. “She saw me across the gym, took off and tackled me. You really can't describe the feeling when your child jumps in your arms. It is probably one of the best Father's Day gifts that I've gotten in all my life.”
Victoria was flown home for free thanks to a program called "Mission: Care" run by the non-profit organization Operation Homefront in conjunction with Dove Men+Care that will bring 300 military dads home to see their families around Father’s Day. Victoria, who has been a marine for 11 years, was also able to be home for Alycia’s ninth birthday on June 8, joining his wife and 1-year-old daughter to celebrate her special day. He also was able to see his mother and younger brother, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly three years.
“I was telling everybody I worked with how excited I was,’’ Victoria said. “I was feeling bad because I haven’t been home to see her. I spoiled my daughter as much as she could. We were playing with dolls and everything for her birthday.’’
A devoted family man whose own father left when he was five years old, Victoria had been trying to find a way to get home to see his daughters.
“It’s disheartening to hear your baby ask when you're coming to see them,’’ he said. “This really lifted me up. I was scrounging around for money for a plane ticket to come see her when this (program) came along. When I got selected for the plane ticket, it was like I won the lottery.”
This is the first year of the program for Operation Homefront, whose primary mission is to provide emergency financial and other assistance to families of military members and wounded veterans. The 300 recipients were chosen from a pool of about 900 online applications submitted by service members, according to Operation Homefront president Jim Knotts.
“For military dads, what matters most is family,’’ Knotts told TODAY.com. “We just thought this was a great way to give these dads the opportunity to be on the frontline of fatherhood and be there with their families.”
It’s not just military fathers reuniting with their children, either. For U.S. Marine John Diller, he was given a chance to see his own stepfather, Phillip Betts. Diller, 25, who is also stationed at Camp Pendleton, had been saving money to fly to see his parents at their home in Columbia Station, Ohio, when some unexpected doctor bills initially meant he could not accompany his wife and two daughters on the trip.
Thanks to the program, he was able to surprise his stepfather on Friday morning with a visit. This will be the first Father’s Day the two have spent together since Diller joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2007. Betts also was able to see Diller’s infant daughter, who was born in January, for the first time.
“He’s probably the reason I am the person I am today,’’ Diller told TODAY.com. “Without being overdramatic, I had a rough background. My mom had a couple bad marriages, and my biological dad died when I was young. Then Phil came into our lives, and he’s a one-in-a-million kind of guy.
“I was on a pretty bad path as a kid where I was heading in life, and having him as a role model showed me what a man should be. “
Diller and Betts are avid gun assemblers who built an AR-15 rifle, so Diller was planning to go shooting with his stepfather on Saturday.
“We haven’t been able to shoot together since I was in high school,’’ he said. “Any time I’ve been home in the past couple years, we never seem to be able to spend any real time together because it’s always a whirlwind with family and friends. I cannot wait.”