Six-year-old Christian Ankeny went to Chuck E. Cheese’s in Billings on Saturday to celebrate his birthday.
At least that’s the reason his mom, Ricki Ankeny, gave the Lockwood boy for going to the kid-friendly Billings pizzeria.
Little did Christian know it would also be a welcome-home party for his dad, Sgt. Justin Ankeny, a returning member of the Montana Army National Guard’s 484th Military Police Company.
Not long into the party filled with balloons and pizzas, Chuck E. Cheese came out to greet Christian, his 9-year-old sister, Brooklyn, and 7-year-old brother, Riley.
The trio of children shook the hand of the oversized colorfully-dressed mouse, gave him high-fives and posed with him for pictures as more than 20 family members looked on and snapped photos. Then Ricki told the children that Chuck E. Cheese had a surprise for them.
As they stood waiting, the big mouse pulled the head off of his costume to reveal the man underneath: Justin Ankeny, who had returned Saturday after 11 months in Afghanistan.
Brooklyn, overcome with emotion, walked up to her dad and hugged him. The boys looked up at their father with big smiles on their faces, then took their turns getting hugs.
They weren’t the only ones to be surprised. Patsy Heppner, Justin Ankeny’s grandmother, came from Colstrip with her husband, John, for the birthday party. The last thing she expected was to see her grandson pop out of the Chuck E. Cheese suit.
“It was a wonderful surprise,” Heppner said. “I had so hoped he could be here for his son’s birthday party. That’s such an awesome present.”
Ricki Ankeny said she and friend Victoria Wolff came up with the idea to surprise the children. Wolff agreed to babysit the kids on Saturday so Ankeny could pick up her husband at Billings Logan International Airport late in the morning.
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Wolff told the children that their mother had been called in to work. Wolff took the kids to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Billings and kept them occupied until the late-afternoon party.
Ankeny and the kids all wore T-shirts with Justin’s face on them and the phrase "my husband is my hero" or "my daddy is my hero," at Brooklyn’s suggestion.
“She said that way Daddy would be with us at the party,” Ankeny said.
Before the party began Justin Ankeny said being away from his family was the toughest part of being deployed to Afghanistan.
“I got to Skype with them and talk to them, but just watching the kids grow up on the computer isn’t the same as watching them grow up in person,” he said.
This fall Christian started kindergarten, and Ankeny said he missed out on seeing that happen.
“But that’s the price we pay for what we do,” he said.
Ricki Ankeny agreed it hasn’t been easy to be away from her husband for so long.
“Aside from a handful of Skype sessions, we haven’t seen each other in 11 months. It’s been really hard,” she said. “The kids, they miss him so bad and of course I miss him a ton.”
On Saturday, the waiting was over, as the family reunited over pizza and balloons and lots of hugs.