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story.lead_photo.caption From left, Gracie, Aubrie, Brice and Katie Bernskoetter unite Friday at St. Martin Catholic School. Brice surprised his daughters with an early homecoming after being deployed for 11 months of service in the U.S. Navy. Photo by Shelby Kardell

By Madeleine Leroux

madeleine@newstribune.com

It had been a normal volleyball game, a scrimmage between the seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Martin Catholic School on Friday afternoon, with a young cheering section of kindergarten students.

Then the piercing sound of a whistle stopped the game, and it was announced a special guest was about to arrive.

Petty Officer 1st Class Brice Bernskoetter walked into the gym in full uniform, and immediately heard were the screams from his daughters, eighth-grader Gracie and kindergartner Aubrie, as they ran full force at the father they hadn't seen in nearly a year and weren't expecting to see until next week.

"That was a pretty brutal hit," Bernskoetter told his older daughter, Gracie, afterward. "I'm still feeling it."

As the girls clung to their father and with their mother, Katie, at their side, they were brought to the center of the gym to say a prayer together and hear a little from Bernskoetter, who had traveled nearly 6,000 miles home. He thanked the students for sending cards to him and his fellow seamen while away, noting how much they meant to him.

Bernskoetter had been away from his family since June and out of the country since September with an embarked security and intelligence team in the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

"I thought you were going to come home on mommy's birthday," Aubrie said to her father after the surprise welcome. (Katie's birthday is May 13.)

Before surprising two of his three daughters the afternoon of May 6 (3-year-old Callie was missing from the celebration), Bernskoetter surprised his wife at St. Mary's Hospital, where she works.

The wait to make the surprise was tough for Bernskoetter, who arrived Thursday in St. Louis and waited at his brother's home before arriving in Mid-Missouri today. He said he wanted to surprise them all on Friday because he wouldn't have gotten home until late Thursday night when they were all home and ready for bed.

"You are totally going to surprise Grandpa," Aubrie said as the family gathered together, finally reunited after a year apart.

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