Xavier and Kaiden McMurtry expected to learn about the nation's presidents Thursday morning.
The Hickory boys didn't expect their father to join them.
Army Staff Sgt. Barry McMurtry just returned from a one-year tour in Afghanistan, his fifth deployment. McMurtry's sons thought he would return this weekend, but he surprised them when he walked onto the stage at Mountain View Elementary School's Presidents' Day program.
Xavier and Kaiden walked onto the stage, surrounded their father and hugged him.
"I was really shocked," Xavier said, eyes wide and wearing a wide smile. "I knew it was a few more days until he came home. This is cool."
McMurtry — stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., since 2005 — flies in UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters in the Army.
The soldier last saw his sons in July. He contacted Mountain View Principal Nancy Yount to plan the surprise during the school assembly.
McMurtry said homecoming greetings are usually brief because returning soldiers see their families and then have other business to take care of before heading home.
"I've never done anything like this," he said before the surprise.
"It's usually in a big hangar with everybody, and we get about 10 minutes together and than I have to leave again. I think they'll look a few times before they realize I'm here."
McMurtry will be in the area for the weekend before he leaves for Fort Campbell.
During the school program, he sat with Xaiver on his left and Kaiden on his right.
"Are you glad to see me?" he asked.
Xavier, a second-grader, nodded.
"You didn't know I was coming, did you?"
Kaiden, who is in kindergarten, shook his head and grinned.
McMurtry presented the school with an American flag that flew outside a helicopter over Afghanistan on Aug. 19, 2011.
Yount thanked McMurtry in a shaky voice.
"I get emotional at times like this," she said.
McMurtry relatives in attendance showed emotion, too. The boys' mother, Rainbow, wiped tears as the school's students and teachers sang "God Bless the USA."
"They just keep asking 'when's daddy coming home, when's daddy coming home,'" she said. "I've been saying, 'it's soon, it's soon.'"