BELFAST, Maine — Maine Army National Guard Spc. Travis Ellsworth safely made it through a long deployment in Afghanistan, but waiting for the minutes to crawl by Wednesday evening in the green backyard of his Belfast church was a nerve-wracking challenge.
The soldier paced the lawn of the Faith Temple Church of God, dropping to the ground for the occasional quick push-up, while he waited to see his children again after the 11-month deployment. The surprise reunion meant the world to Ellsworth, who said he had been a stay-at-home dad for three years before his deployment with the 133rd Engineer Battalion.
“I am nervous. You don’t even know,” the 36-year-old mechanic from Belfast said. “I couldn’t even begin to explain how excited I am to see my kids. It’s pretty amazing.”
His children, Aryana Ellsworth, 7, Jayden Ellsworth, 5, Skyler Bean, 16 and Mya Glidden, 14, knew that their dad was coming home soon, but they didn’t know that he would be there to surprise him as they went to church for their usual Wednesday night youth group meetings.
Pastor Michael Horton said before the reunion that the parishioners were thrilled to organize such a happy event at the church that was decorated with red, white and blue, both for Ellsworth’s homecoming and the 4th of July. The military ministry is important to the church, and while usual activities include sending care packages to men and women serving overseas, helping Ellsworth surprise his family was a treat.
“Everything lined up,” Horton said. “We could have him here and the kids together for an awesome surprise.”
It’s all part and parcel of the church’s commitment to the military, he said, adding that the large American flag flying outside snaps in the breeze all year long as a symbol of solidarity and support.
“We are so passionate about our military. Ministering to them when they are deployed,” Horton said, adding that they try to help families in lots of ways, including spiritually, emotionally and financially. “It’s case by case, as needs arise. You can’t predict — each family situation is different.”
For Ellsworth, who does not have a spouse, the church stepped up to fill some needs that cropped up when he was far away.
“When you’re over there, you’re focused on the mission. When things happen here — life situations — it’s good to have somebody here to talk to, to Facebook message with,” Ellsworth said. “It was the hardest thing I ever did, to leave my kids, but I did it for the right reasons. To offer my kids a better future.”
As Ellsworth counted down the clock, other members of the church waited with him, greeting him with heartfelt hugs and proudly holding up homemade welcome home signs.
“It just seems so wonderful he’s come home,” Winnifred Ward of Belfast said, adding that his children are “very good kids. I’m so happy for the family.”
Finally, the moment arrived. Aryana, Jayden and Skyler were taken outside by a relative, then saw their father. They ran to him, jumping into his arms for long, excited embraces.
Later, after the hugs had finally stopped, Ellsworth said that the reunion was well worth the wait.
“I can’t even explain. It’s better than Disneyland,” he said.