Columbia, IL (KSDK) - It had been nearly four months since 5-year-old Carmella Vitale saw her father.
Upon returning from a humanitarian mission in Honduras, Army National Guard Sergeant First Class Matthew Vitale of Belleville surprised his daughter Friday afternoon at the Monroe County YMCA, where Carmella is in day camp.
Or did he?
Clearly, this bright little girl knew something was up. After all, the other kids at day camp were in on it.
"They know," said day camp Director Anna Fiore. "All the other campers know."
They even spent part of their day making signs.
"Well they're making them red, white, and blue. They say 'Welcome back Mr. Vitale,' and 'Thank you for your service to our country.'"
Vitale said his daughter knew he was going to be home sometime this weekend. If she figured out he was going to show up at day camp and surprise her, it didn't water down her enthusiasm at seeing her father again.
You could see the moment of recognition in her eyes. She stood there in the gymnasium, surrounded by her fellow camp members and counselors, when her Dad walked in a door to the gymnasium. She was holding a sign that nearly covered her up entirely.
Vitale described the moment from his point of view.
"It was kind of a shock like, 'Oh, there he is!' And then I said, 'Come here honey.' And she was kind of hesitant and she comes running over."
With his encouragement, Carmella took a few steps forward. They embraced, and Vitale picked up his daughter.
"How's my baby," he said. "I love you. I missed you so much. Did you miss me?
Carmella's face is buried in the side of her Dad's head. She nods.
"So what do you want to do today?" Vitale asked Carmella.
"Something fun," she said. "I got my ears pierced."
"Oh my goodness. Let me see," said Vitale. She leaned back to show him. "Oh my goodness."
For about the 10th time Vitale kissed his daughter on the cheek. He later relived the moment for a NewsChannel 5 crew.
"I saw that little bob cut that she has and this big smile and I knew that was my little one," he said. "I was excited. Goosebumps when I held her and first thing she said to me is 'Daddy I love you,' and that really hits home.
The Vitales joy may be short-lived. Matthew is scheduled to deploy again in June 2013, only this time to Afghanistan.
And for that trip, Vitale says he'll likely be gone, not for four months, but for 12.