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Beverly soldier’s surprise for his kids: Home for Christmas

Sgt. John LGigliwho returned Friday from serving Afghanistan embraces his daughter Grace 6 after surprising her her classroom SutherlElementary School

Sgt. John La Giglia, who returned Friday from serving in Afghanistan, embraces his daughter, Grace, 6, after surprising her in her classroom at Sutherland Elementary School in Chicago. | Gary Middendorf~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 25, 2012 8:09AM

Six-year-old Grace La Giglia got her Christmas present a couple of days early this year.

Her father, Army Staff Sgt. John La Giglia, 29, surprised her Friday when he walked into her classroom at Sutherland Elementary School just hours after returning from a yearlong tour in Afghanistan.

“I’m just really excited to see my kids, to be honest with you,” said La Giglia, who arrived at the school to find a crowd of family and friends welcoming him home to Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood.

La Giglia carried Grace out of her classroom and stepped into a hallway lined with students chanting “U-S-A.”

“I’ve been all around the world, and there’s nothing like the South Side of Chicago,” he said of his welcome home.

John’s wife of seven years, “Mel” La Giglia, found out early last week that John would be coming home Friday. After raising the couple’s three children — Grace; Mick, 4; and Brooke, 2 — on her own while getting her nursing degree, she is looking forward to “just having a normal life.”

“It was definitely a challenge, but it was great,” Mel said about going to school while raising her kids. “In a way, it keeps your mind off of things.”

She also kept herself busy while John was overseas by organizing a boot and sock drive for Afghan children. Mel collected 157 pairs of boots, stuffed five pairs of socks in each one, and shipped them to her husband to distribute.

“I just have a newfound appreciation for things that I’m grateful for,” Mel said.

While Brooke is still too young to understand her father’s service and Mick used to ask his mom if she could just go pick his dad up when he wanted to play, Grace knows what a hero he is. In the past year, John missed recitals and plays and Grace’s birthday, which is on the Fourth of July.

“It’s going to be great to capture [their reunion] and for them to have this memory forever,” said Joe La Giglia, one of John’s older brothers.

The youngest of five siblings, John enlisted in the Army at 18 and has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Several members of the La Giglia family have served in the armed forces, including John’s grandfather, Philip Steven La Giglia.

Joe admits it wasn’t easy to see his little brother go, but he couldn’t be prouder.

“A long time ago, he definitely became the older brother for all of us in his strength,” Joe said.

While family members shed tears and took turns giving John hugs and kisses, Grace kept her arms firmly wrapped around her father and a smile on her face.

No one seemed able to put into words just how elated they were to see John come home.

“It’s so special, I can’t tell you,” said his father, Frank La Giglia. “I’m just glad he’s home safe.”

“You can’t even describe the feeling,” Mel said.

Grace may have said it best: “I was really happy.”

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