Home Local News Hamlet National Guard soldier surprises sons after 17-month deployment

Hamlet National Guard soldier surprises sons after 17-month deployment

Gary Chavis hugs his oldest son, Tristan, after coming back from a 17-month deployment in the Middle East.
Screenshot of video from Amber Chavis

HAMLET — Tristan and Nolan Chavis hadn’t seen their dad, Gary, in nearly a year and a half — until Wednesday night.

Gary Chavis surprised his boys after coming home from an overseas deployment while the family was out for dinner at La Cabana.

But that wasn’t the original plan.

Amber Chavis said her husband’s plane was supposed to land in Raleigh at 6 p.m. and the two of them were going to stay in a hotel and surprise the boys while picking them up from school Thursday afternoon.

“However, with the Army, nothing is ever set in stone, and constantly changing, which is exactly what happened last minute,” she said. “He ended up landing in Raleigh at 1:30 p.m. instead. We obviously wouldn’t make it back home in time to pick them up from school.”

On the way home, the pair decided to have the homecoming at the restaurant.

Their sons were with Gary Chavis’ sister, Rebecca, who, along with her husband and son, took the boys out to eat.

“We agreed I would walk in first and he would come in a few minutes behind me,” Amber Chavis said. As I walked in, I spoke to the hostess and asked if she’d let Gary come in the back door — due to covid, it was locked. I explained that we were there to surprise our kids and he’d been deployed overseas for more than a year. I sat down in the booth and apologized for being late, because I was supposed to be at a “doctors appointment.”

When she got there, the boys were sitting in a back booth eating chips and salsa.

A few minutes later, Gary Chavis came in and Amber jumped up and started recording with her phone.

“What’s up dudes?” he said with a chuckle as he walked around the corner from the booth they were sitting in. “Come here.”

Tristan, 11, “almost burst into tears” when he saw his dad, Amber Chavis said, and was the first out of the booth to hug him.

“Our youngest, Nolan, 6, jumped up and Gary picked him up,” she said. “Then our nephew, Ethan, 11, got in on the group hug. It was really emotional. Seeing my babies have their dad back was overwhelming, and I cried too.”

Gary Chavis said there was “no describing” how it felt to see their expressions.

“Imagine taking away the thing that matters most on this earth, and then being given it back,” he said. “That’s what seeing their smiles was like.”

But the boys weren’t the only ones surprised.

Amber Chavis said when they received the bill, it was much lower than expected considering how much food and drink they had ordered.

“The staff said the beverages were on them,” she said. “We didn’t expect that at all. It was really sweet of them.”


Gary Chavis enlisted in the N.C. Army National Guard in 2008. He currently holds the rank of staff sergeant and serves as platoon sergeant of Charlie Company for the 230th Brigade Support Battalion.

He left his family and job at the Hamlet Fire Department last April when his company was deployed and stationed at Camp Beuhring, Kuwait. But he was detached from his company and on a separate mission in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“It’s been difficult being a single parent for almost 17 months,” Amber Chavis said.

Prior to his deployment, he was living with his unit in Goldsboro.

“He was able to come home on weekends, but it wasn’t the same,” she said. “It was a big adjustment for the boys and I, but this wasn’t our first deployment.”

Gary Chavis spent 12 months in Afghanistan back in 2011.

“It started to get really hard when we were hit with COVID in March, and the schools closed,” Amber Chavis continued. “I was, and still am a full time student at UNCP, and then I had to become a teacher for two kids.”

Their youngest started kindergarten, oldest was in the fifth grade and she was in her first semester at a university.

While he was gone, the family kept in touch through Facebook messenger, with a lot of video calls.

“It was rough,” she said. “The whole year was rough, but I’m glad it’s over, so are our kids and our family. He was missed dearly by everyone.”

Gary Chavis said he hopes he’s home for good, but could be redeployed in another three to four years.

In the meantime, he plans to spend his time doing “everything a father should do” with his sons: watching movies and playing video games; engaging in outdoor activities like fishing, camping, kayaking and playing catch.

“Just teaching them to be the men I hope they’ll be.” 


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Managing Editor William R. Toler is an award-winning writer and photographer with experience in print, television and online media.