Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith may be far away from his wife and child during the holidays this year, but the deployed Marine is stationed just a fraction of an inch from them on the family's Christmas card.
If a holiday reunion with her husband was not in the cards, it became crucial for Andrea Smith that he still get to share a photograph with the couple's 3-year-old daughter, Charlotte.
"I would love to have him home for the holidays, and I know it’s not possible this year," she told TODAY. "But this card gives him a chance to be part of our Christmas."
While Andrew Smith had also been deployed overseas a year ago — his wife is not allowed to share his current location — he had managed to surprise Charlotte by returning home two days before Christmas.
"Charlotte kept saying, 'Santa brought you home,'" recalled the proud mom. "So when we knew he was going to be gone again this year and there was no chance he'd be back in time, my daughter told my husband, 'All I really want you to be is safe.'"
So the 28-year-old mom enlisted her friend, photographer Leslie Owen, to help put together the next best thing. It was Owen who hatched the idea to shoot mother and daughter at their favorite store, the Target near their base of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and to incorporate Andrew Smith in the picture through a little Photoshop magic.
The Marine was very involved in the project over email, mobilizing some help from others in his unit to photograph him in the right pose as if he were catching Charlotte as she balanced precariously from the top of a shopping cart. (The family wants TODAY readers to know the toddler was never in any danger, since the card is actually a composite of three photos, including the one below.)
Andrea Smith said she became so overwhelmed with emotion when she saw the final image that she cried. But her daughter had an even more memorable reaction: "Charlotte said, 'Mommy, that’s all of us, even Daddy is in our card! I love it.'"
But nothing prepared the family for the reaction beyond the household, both far and wide, after Smith posted the card on social media last Friday. The image, shared on Facebook and Instagram, quickly went viral.
"I honestly don’t know why so many people were touched by the holiday card," said Smith. "It’s just unbelievable that I could move so many people with a simple card.
"I guess the message brings awareness to something that so many people in military families are going through but has gotten forgotten. It’s not in our daily news feeds anymore that people are still being deployed.
"I was just trying to spread holiday cheer."