Michael Kirkpatrick got much more than he bargained for when he returned home to Forsyth County on Aug. 13 for a two-week leave.
The 26-year-old, who is a member of the Navy but received Army combat training for his six-month stint in Afghanistan, was expecting a small gathering of family members.
Instead, he got a 30-by-20-foot American flag suspended from a Forsyth County Fire Department ladder truck and members of the Lambert High School drum line beating out rhythms in his honor.
Dozens of neighbors also lined the family’s Aberdeen subdivision street, waving American flags as another fire department engine escorted the family car home.
“It’s all pretty overwhelming,” Michael Kirkpatrick said, after getting plenty of hugs and handshakes from his family and friends.
He said he was most surprised by the fire engine that met their vehicle on Highway 141 after he, mom Deborah and younger sister Kathlene got off Ga. 400.
“I kept saying, ‘Why is this firetruck going so slow with his lights and sirens on? If someone’s in trouble, they’re not helping and they’re going to get fired,’” he said.
“But when they pulled onto our street, I knew something was up.”
Deborah Kirkpatrick said it was a challenge keeping the secret during the drive from the Atlanta airport.
“It was difficult not being able to tell him about it in the car,” she said. “But we were able to do it and he didn’t suspect a thing.”
Sister Kathlene, 17, had the job of updating father Steve on their journey.
“It was funny because [Michael] was talking to mom in the front and I was in the back sending text messages to dad, letting him know where we were,” she said.
Steve Kirkpatrick was the mastermind behind the covert operation, which he had been planning for some time.
“Ever since he left, I knew I wanted to do something really big for him when he got to come home,” he said, noting the first step was to find the biggest flag possible.
“I knew I wanted to make a big impression and bigger the flag, the better.”
The elder Kirkpatrick searched the Internet, eventually finding a 600-square-foot flag for sale by Jan and Russell Holley of Morganton, near Blue Ridge.
After hearing Steve Kirkpatrick’s plan, Jan Holley said the couple decided to give the flag to the family.
“We believe it was meant to be from God that we picked the flag up at a yard sale in Copperhill, Tenn., and then got it to its right home with Steve for Michael,” Holley said.
She said her brother served as a Marine in Vietnam, so it was an honor for them to help another with military ties.
“We don’t believe in coincidence,” she said. “The flag ended up where it was supposed to be, and we don’t have to know Michael to be proud of him.”
Like Holley, many of the family’s neighbors expressed pride.
“I’m so happy to see so many people out,” said neighbor Susan Porter. “He’s been our neighbor for 15 years and we’ve known him since he was a little boy.
“We’re so blessed to have him home.”
Added next-door neighbor Ed Durrence: “We’ve watched Michael grow up and join the service. We’re so proud of what he’s doing for our country. He’s a fine fellow.”
But no one was more proud than his father, who said he struggled for several days trying to make sure the event came off without any hitches.
“At the last minute, it looked like everything was falling apart,” Steve Kirkpatrick said.
With Michael Kirkpatrick originally scheduled to arrive on Friday afternoon, his father had planned for the homecoming to be held at Lambert High, where the student body could cheer for him.
However, he was delayed in Kuwait, leaving the family unsure when he would arrive until Saturday morning.
The shift also cast doubt on the availability of the drum line and fire department.
“But things turned out fantastic,” Steve Kirkpatrick said. “I’m tickled to death.”
Michael Kirkpatrick will return to Afghanistan when his leave is up before coming home for good in January or February.
“I guess I’ll have to come up with something even bigger and better then,” Steve Kirkpatrick said.