Published 12:00 am Friday, December 20, 2013

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Clayton has missed out on a lot of things during his deployment, such as his triplets’ seventh birthday and their first day of first grade, but this year, he said he won’t be missing Christmas..

Even though Clayton keeps up with his wife, Kim, and triplets, Andrew, Michael and Zachary, through the phone, Facebook and Skype, he said that “Christmas is not the same with someone missing.”

Clayton is scheduled to come home in March, but requested two weeks of leave to come home for Christmas.

Clayton contacted Woodleaf’s principal, Susan Herrington, at the beginning of the school year to find out if a surprise was even a possibility. Then, when his request for leave was granted, they hatched a plan to surprise his family.

Woodleaf Elementary School held a special Christmas assembly Thursday. The students sang carols, participated in reader’s theater and listened to Christmas stories told by Robert Jones from Rowan Public Library.

Kim sat near the front with her parents, recording the performance to send to Clayton.

After his second story, Jones asked for a volunteer from the audience. Rather than select one of the many eager students in the auditorium, Jones picked Clayton from the very back of the auditorium.

Kim said even though it only took a few seconds to realize that the man walking down the aisle was her husband, it felt like it took minutes. She put her head down on her camera when she realized it was him.

“I’m speechless, really,” she said.

Kim said she hadn’t heard from Clayton in two days, which is unusual, but not unheard of. There’s been a lot of action in the area where he is stationed over the past few days, so she was trying not to worry.

It took the Clayton triplets a little longer to process the fact that their dad was standing on the stage with them. They jumped up one by one and greeted Clayton with a hug. They were soon joined by Kim, who also made her way on the stage.

Clayton joked, “How often do you get to surprise triplets?”

Since he wasn’t supposed to come home until March, it never occurred to Kim or the boys that Clayton might make it home for Christmas.

“It’s probably the best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten,” she said.

Zachary said that he’s looking forward to “having a merry Christmas” with his dad.

Clayton is stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he’s a human resources officer for the Navy and works with the Afghan National Police. He’ll return to Afghanistan in two weeks, then will return home in March.

Clayton plans to retire in October after 23 years in the military.