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Navy dad returns home early, surprises kids by popping up in their Santa photo

A visit to Santa brought three children a true Christmas surprise — not to mention the best photobomb ever.

As Rob Stella’s kids posed with Santa earlier this month, they smiled as the photographer in front of them counted down. Stella then popped up, rising from behind the bench where he had been waiting until he heard the right familiar voices of his own family.

Rob Stella
Rob Stella and his surprise appearance with Santa on the day he returned from his deployment in Bahrain.

“My heart was just pounding. It was extremely exciting because I hadn’t seen them in quite a while,” said Stella, who had just returned home that day from a one-year deployment in Bahrain with the U.S. Navy.

Stella’s trip back home had been altered several times, leading his children to think he wasn’t returning for another week.

But in late November, he learned his command would be able to send him home, as originally planned, on Dec. 5. Stella, 42, told his wife, but the couple agreed to keep it from their three children and planned to surprise them instead.

Stella's wife, Rachel, reached out to the mall and worked out the details. On Dec. 5, Stella took a 41-hour trip back home to California, changed his clothes and headed to the mall, where he waited behind Santa’s bench until the right family sat down.

RELATED: Soldier's early homecoming surprises daughter — with Santa's help

When he initially stood up, none of his children noticed. But then his younger son saw that people in front of him were laughing — so he looked behind the bench to find out what was so funny and spotted his dad.

“What?” he exclaimed in surprise.

YouTube
Daddy's home!

He and his older brother reached over and took turns giving their dad a hug as their 10-year-old sister, Maddie, waited patiently with outstretched arms. When Stella climbed over the bench and picked her up, Maddie started crying.

In addition to being an early Christmas present, her dad’s return also served as a gift for her birthday, which was the following day.

Rob Stella
Rob Stella hugs his 10-year-old daughter, Maddie.

He had missed his daughter’s birthday last year since he left for his deployment just days earlier.

RELATED: Mall Santa 'snoozes' with boy tired from seizure in Christmas photo

“It melts your heart," Stella said about seeing his daughter's expression. "You could just see all the pain going away. It’s finally relief that Daddy’s home.”

Rob Stella
Together at last: Rob Stella's entire family, including his wife, Rachel, their sons Dylan, 16, and Justin, 14, and their daughter Maddie, 10, take a very special photo with Santa.

Stella will remain in San Diego for the next year as he begins the transition to his retirement from the Navy.

“For military personnel, we love to serve, but the hardest part of it is just leaving the family and missing all these moments that they have throughout the year,” he said. “A year is a long time. Just seeing them was great and I’m glad I’m giving them something that they’ll always remember. It’s one of those moments.”

Follow TODAY.com writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.

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