LYNN — After nine months of talking to him on FaceTime about his friends and fun at Lincoln-Thomson Elementary School and life with his grandparents, Yissell Mendez wrapped her son, Danniel, in a hug Monday afternoon and didn’t let go.
“It was hard. I love what I do but I missed so many things in his life,” she said.
Mendez is a U.S. Army sergeant who spent nine months deployed in Iraq before returning home late last month to Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Danniel, a Lincoln-Thomson first-grader, knew his mother was coming home sometime this month. But thanks to the collective efforts of grandfather, Felipe Fernandez, and Lincoln-Thomson teachers and administrators, Mendez was able to surprise her son during a school assembly Monday.
Dressed in uniform, she stepped out from behind a partition on one side of the auditorium stage and Danniel jumped from his seat and ran into her arms. Teachers and students applauded during the long hug and then Danniel snuggled with family members who came to the school to enjoy the reunion while Mendez told her audience about her Iraq service.
Responsible for helping maintain health and sanitation standards for military personnel stationed in Iraq, she conducted inspections, collected insects to study them for potential health hazards, and tested water.
Danniel broke away briefly from his mother’s arms Monday to describe her job in a different way.
“She has to keep the soldiers safe,” he said.
Mendez’s deployment was scheduled to end in early May but escalating tensions with Iran stepped up security precautions for U.S. troops in Iraq and restricted their movement.
She returned to the U.S. on May 26 and Fernandez told Danniel’s teacher, Amy Terrio, last Friday that Mendez would be back in Lynn on Monday. Working with fellow teacher Colleen McElligott and Principal Mary Foster, Terrio organized the assembly and coordinated Mendez’s arrival at the Gardiner Street school.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Mendez grew up in Lynn and graduated Lynn Vocational Technical Institute in 2008. She joined the Army a year later but said her military career options as a non-citizen were initially limited. She worked as an aircraft fueler and, after becoming a U.S. citizen, pursued public health.
“I wanted to do something new,” she said.
Mendez plans to spend most of June with her family before returning to Fort Bragg where she is confident she can apply for and obtain a job as an Army recruiter based in Massachusetts.
“The most special thing is she is safe at home,” said Fernandez.