That masked man is Dad: Returning naval officer surprises daughter in Palatine

  • Petty Officer First Class Konrad Otachel sneaks up behind his daughter, kindergartner Naomi Otachel, on Friday at St. Thomas of Villanova School in Palatiney. She was reading about her father's deployment when he surprised her during a ceremony to honor the military.

      Petty Officer First Class Konrad Otachel sneaks up behind his daughter, kindergartner Naomi Otachel, on Friday at St. Thomas of Villanova School in Palatiney. She was reading about her father's deployment when he surprised her during a ceremony to honor the military. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Kindergartner Naomi Otachel and her dad, Petty Officer First Class Konrad Otachel, reunite Friday at St. Thomas of Villanova School in Palatine.

      Kindergartner Naomi Otachel and her dad, Petty Officer First Class Konrad Otachel, reunite Friday at St. Thomas of Villanova School in Palatine. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/30/2020 7:13 PM

Kindergartner Naomi Otachel led her classmates in a Hail Mary Friday morning on the steps of St. Thomas of Villanova School in Palatine, offering prayers and gratitude for members of the military, like her father, Konrad.

Then she read from a paper she recently completed for a class assignment about her dad.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I wish my daddy was here," said the 5-year-old, dressed in a Smurfette costume on the eve of Halloween.

"Naomi," said Principal Mary Brinkman, "sometimes God helps dreams come true. Why don't you turn around?"

There, dressed head to toe in camouflage including his face mask, was Konrad -- finally home after a Navy deployment that lasted nearly 15 months.

"Hey, munchkin," he said, clutching a bouquet of flowers to give to her.

"Daddy's back?" asked Naomi, who was initially stunned.

The surprise ceremony was in the works for days, and most of the older students were in on it, too. Classroom windows were decorated with their hand-drawn American flags and large signs proclaiming, "Welcome Home Mr. Otachel" and "You're Our Hero Mr. O."

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"I know she's a little shy, but I'm really excited," Otachel said. "I haven't seen my little girl for so long. I mean, kids this age, 15 months -- it's a big difference."

The 41-year-old petty officer first class -- who plans to retire in February after 22 years in the Navy -- was supposed to return for a brief visit in March. But amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Otachel was stuck at the U.S. Navy Support Facility in Diego Garcia, an atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He's been there in a logistical support role to naval bombers in the area.

Even when Otachel finally got to come back earlier this month, he had to quarantine away from his wife, Marlleny, and daughter for two weeks. Friday marked the first day he's been home since August 2019.

A month before deployment, Otachel and his family moved to Palatine -- the latest and what they hope to be final stop during his military career. He's previously been stationed in Philadelphia, Virginia and Bahrain, and Marlleny has followed him everywhere except Bahrain, which was a 13-month deployment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I went through this before many times, so you get used to it. It's exciting, but I was just more excited about her," Marlleny said of Naomi's getting to see her dad on Friday. "I couldn't wait to see her face. My heart was melting."

Otachel said he and his wife waited to start a family until he was closer to retirement, because of how tough it can be with one parent away from home. But he says he always had a desire to join the military, from his early days growing up in rural Poland. He regularly heard war stories from his grandfather, who evaded capture by the Nazis during World War II, and his grandmother, now 92, a concentration camp survivor.

His family immigrated to Chicago in 1993, and he enlisted after graduating from high school.

Now that his military service is coming to an end, Otachel says he's looking forward to civilian life, getting a regular job and doing all the things suburban families do.

"(Naomi's) 5 now, so it'll be nice to actually be here and spend some time with her and see different events," he said. "I know we're kind of limited with what's going on now and don't have much events because of the virus, but hopefully once that passes, it will be nice to actually be able to go and see her and be part of her life."

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