The Minnesota National Guard has pulled off surprise returns before, but nothing quite like the special plunge one father who returned from Afghanistan took to tell his children he was home for the holidays.
It will certainly be a special Christmas for 150 soldiers of the 850th Horizontal Engineer Company out of Cambridge. The men and women in uniform got home just in time for the holiday after being overseas for 11 months. Some of that time was spent in Afghanistan as the unit worked to clear mine fields and improve local roads and infrastructure, but all members returned home safely.
On Sunday afternoon, the soldiers were welcomed home by loved ones -- but one member of the unit wasn't there. Instead, he made quite a splash at the Mall of America's SEA-LIFE Aquarium.
Army 1st Lt. Nick Aldrich swapped one uniform for another, donning a scuba Santa suit to bring the spirit of the season to the underwater explorers -- which included his family.
"I'm going to be Scuba Claus, apparently," he joked.
Aldrich is used to training, but he said nothing was quite like the mission he had in the tank with a shark that measures as long as the combat engineer is tall.
"I'm excited! A little nervous, but mostly excited," he told Fox 9 News.
After a little scuba instruction, Aldrich was ready to spread some holiday cheer and revealed himself with a special sign for Britta, Teagan and Jace, Solveil and Esme.
"Hi! It's Dad! I'm home!" the sign read in part.
Even as a trained soldier, Aldrich admits he was calm and collected until he saw his family.
"All of a sudden, I was dipping too low and had water going through my mouth," he recalled. "I have to get this under control so I don't pass out while in an aquarium with sharks!"
The surprise mission was a total success, and it made for a holiday memory few will be quick to forget.
"It's exciting enough to have him home after being gone so long, but to be able to do it in such a fun way was great," Britta Aldrich said.
For the father, watching his children react was as wonderful welcome as the wet hug he gave them.
"To see them light up with joy was priceless," he said.
Yet, the greatest gift of all may have been meeting 7-month-old Esme, who was born while her father was away.
"It's absolutely going to be the best Christmas," Lt. Aldrich said. "I've been gone. I haven't seen them, and now, we get to be together again."
WHBQ-TV | Fox 13
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