GREENVILLE – A soldier returned home for the first time since the summer and surprised his sister in an emotional reunion Tuesday morning at Greenville High School.
Private Second Class Derrick Smith, a 2018 Greenville High School graduate, came home and reunited with his sister, Greenville junior Chloe Mitchell, in the school’s cafeteria. The siblings embraced as they struggled to hold back tears.
“All I said was, ‘Are your surprised?’ That was it. She just kept crying,” Smith said. “I was OK with it.”
The siblings’ mother, Erin Mitchell, planned the reunion along with Greenville Naval Science Instructor Stephen Eldred over a three-month period. Chloe Mitchell thought she was being interviewed about supporting the military when her brother entered the room.
“I thought it wasn’t real,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”
Chloe Mitchell and Smith regularly text to remain in contact, but they hadn’t seen each other for approximately six months since he left for boot camp. Smith, who is based at Fort Irwin in California, got a 10-day leave to return home for the first time beginning on Monday.
“I’m just happy I got it because your leave can get denied or approved, either way,” he said. “Mine got approved, and I was very happy that I could come see my sister.
“I’m very happy that she was surprised. I’m happy I’m here to see my family.”
Chloe Mitchell’s Christmas wish was that she would get to see her brother. She thought maybe they’d visit him in California or possibly Virginia, where they lived prior to moving to Greenville last year. But getting to spend the holidays at home with him is better than anything, she said.
“She’s got a million guesses, but this isn’t one,” Erin Mitchell said. “I’m excited. I’m just elated to see her surprise and to keep it all together.”
After surprising her daughter, Erin Mitchell planned to surprise her parents, Joe and Kathy Mitchell, and her youngest son, Caleb Mitchell, a sixth grader at Greenville Middle School.
“My parents still don’t know,” she said. “We’re going to go up here to the park and surprise them. They still don’t know anything. My youngest one over at the middle school, he doesn’t know. We’re going to go and get him.”
Erin Mitchell, who had to sneak out in the middle of the night to pick up Smith at the airport, said it wasn’t easy keeping the secret the past few months.
“To hold the secret myself and not be able to tell anybody … I talked to the dogs; that’s pretty much it,” she said. “That’s all I’ve had to talk to.”
On his end of the surprise, Eldred said, it went smoothly in setting up everything, and he was happy to help the family reunite for Christmas.
“As a former drill instructor, it’s very hard for our 17, 18, 19 year olds because for most of them this is the first time they’re ever away from home,” Eldred said. “And even myself when I joined the Navy, I might have been on my own a lot, but it was you’re not going home now. It’s not the same. You just can’t walk up and walk back home. So it’s an emotional trial at the onset until you get adjusted for the first year.”
Smith has leave until Dec. 27, at which point he will return to Fort Irwin. He’s training to be a combat engineer in the Army for a career and work in demolitions. It’s been difficult being away from home, he said, but knowing he would see his family again helped him cope with the pain of being away from them.
“I’ve missed every moment,” he said. “I’ve missed all of my family, every last dying second that I didn’t really have with them.”
Eldred, who was Smith’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps instructor during his senior year at Greenville, said he’s proud of what his former student is doing.
“You can’t be any more proud as a teacher than to have one of your students doing something great for this country,” Eldred said.