PITTSBURGH -- Army Captain Dawn McCracken-Bruce has been to war. She’s done a tour of duty in Afghanistan, another one this year in Iraq. But now, as she waits in a back office at the Robinson Mall in Pittsburgh, she is nervous.
In the past week, McCracken-Bruce, 31, traveled with her unit from Iraq to Kuwait -- as part of the final pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq -- to Fort Bliss, Texas, for days of processing (which consisted mostly of waiting). The day before she returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh, she was reunited with her husband, Scott. But their children, Dominick, 4, and Tyson, 2, have no idea she's back. They've kept that from them. The plan has been worked out with military-like precision. Scott will take them to the mall to meet Santa, and while they’re there, she will suddenly appear. It will be her Christmas surprise for her little boys.
It’s almost noon now, and she is in the mall’s management office. She is dressed in military boots and combat fatigues, and her nerves are jangled with anticipation.
She’s asked what she’ll say when she sees her sons for the first time since a brief home furlough last July.
“I don’t think I need to say anything,” she says. “I think emotions are just going to be everything. Just time together. I know that’s what they want. The two-year-old I’m nervous about. I don’t how this is going to go down. When I came home on R&R (in July) he was a little bit apprehensive at first. And then he jumped right on me and didn’t leave my side after that. But I don’t know how he’s going to react with me walking out.”
And Dominick? “I think he’ll scream and run,” she says. “Well, at first, he’s going to be nervous and t hen he’ll look and he’ll be like, ‘Is that her’? And then he’ll run.”
What about her? She laughs. “I can’t guarantee I’m not going to cry,” she says.
Iraq last January. While she was away, she talked to her family almost daily via Skype. When she called her sons just a couple of days earlier from Fort Bliss, her cover -- that she was still overseas -- was very nearly blown. Dominick noticed modern, tall buildings he’d never seen before and then a civilian in Western clothing in the background. With a tone of suspension, he asked his mother where she really was. She didn’t exactly lie. She told him there are modern buildings and Americans in civilian garb in Iraq. Close call!
In the mall office now, a phone rings and someone tells her they’re here. Scott, Dominick and Tyson have arrived and are making their way toward Santa.
“I’m ready, more than ready” McCracken-Bruce says, but she isn’t very convincing,
We head down a back hallway to the double door that opens near Santa’s outpost. We talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff prospects. The door opens as a mall official slips by. McCracken-Bruce tries to sneak a glimpse through the gap. She confesses to an odd mixture of nervousness and excitement. It’s been so long since she’s seen her children, touched them, held them her arms. In just a few minutes, she will be able to do it all again just as she’s dreamed for all these months apart from them.
And then the door is open. A mall official guides her counterclockwise around the circle where Santa is holding Tyson and Dominick on his lap. Scott is beside them, but she can’t see them yet. Stealthily, she circles around. She’s just 20 feet away and closing ground fast. The boys are oblivious. They’re intently locked in conversation with the man in red.
“We have a surprise coming,” Santa tells them. The children seem delighted but also a little perplexed. Surprise? What surprise? It’s not even Christmas yet.
“Oh my goodness gracious,” Santa says mysteriously. “Here comes your surprise.”
Dominick and Tyson follow Santa’s gaze and there, right in front of them, is their mom with a million-watt smile brightening her face. But at first it doesn’t register. They look stunned and disbelieving. Dominick’s expression seems to say: “That looks like my mother but how can that be? She’s not supposed to be here.” Then, in an instant, they realize it really is her. She really is here, now. In that same sweet instant, she sweeps them into her arms as one them cries out: “Mommy!” and then they hug one another for what seems like eternity.
What McCracken-Bruce did not know was that there was a surprise waiting for her, too. The family heads down the corridor, past the Christmas displays and then stops short.
The band from the high school that McCracken-Bruce attended is seated between the escalators and strikes up The Star Spangled Banner. Hundreds of shoppers gathered round and on the balcony applaud, and Army Captain Dawn McCracken-Bruce, the war veteran, cries.