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MATTOON -- Carmen Rodriguez had just sat down for lunch in the Mattoon Middle School cafeteria on Friday when she noticed that several cellphone cameras were starting to point in her direction.

The sixth-grader said she then realized the reason for all of this attention -- her dad, Army Staff Sgt. Alex Rodriguez, was walking toward her table in his fatigue uniform. She had thought that her dad would not be returning from his 12-month deployment to South Korea until Monday, but he ended up arriving in Mattoon on Friday and paid her a surprise visit.

Carmen jumped up from her seat at the table and gave her dad a long hug as her classmates in the cafeteria applauded their happy reunion.

"It felt unreal. It felt like a dream, like a dream come true," Carmen said afterward.

In addition to surprising Carmen, Rodriguez paid a surprise visit Friday morning to his younger daughter, second-grader Valerie Rodriguez, in her classroom at Riddle Elementary School in Mattoon.

The two children's mother, Jennifer (Snow) Rodriguez-Blackwell, said she has always been moved by seeing photos and videos of children having joyous surprise reunions when their parents return from deployments with the military.

Rodriguez-Blackwell said when she realized that her children's father, her ex-husband Rodriguez, would be returning earlier than they expected, she decided to organize a surprise reunion for them. She thanked school officials for their support in making this surprise possible.

"I am happy that we were able to keep it under wraps and surprise both girls. It was a very joyful occasion to be able to surprise both of them at school," Staff Sgt. Rodriguez said.

The returning soldier said Valerie's teacher, Melissa Scheffer, helped foreshadow his surprise arrival in her classroom by asking the students if they like to write about big moments in their lives. Rodriguez said Scheffer then told Valerie that, "I bet you could write about this moment right now," as he walked into the room.

After Rodriguez and Carmen hugged in the middle school cafeteria, Principal Nathan Pugh told the students there that Rodriguez had just returned from South Korea and that he had previously served two tours in Afghanistan.

"The reason he is going there is for your freedom. This is someone who is putting his life on the line and leaving his family so you can have what you have today," Pugh said. The students in the cafeteria then gave Rodriguez a standing ovation.

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Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @RobStroud

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