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York, Pa. soldier returns from Afghanistan to family — and, surprise, a new home

4-year-old Emily Collazo holds the hand of her father, Michael, as they walk through the parking lot of BWI airport on Friday. In her other hand, Emily is holding the doll he brought home to her after serving a year in Afghanistan. YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS –JASON PLOTKIN

The girl with the purple ribbon in her hair picked up a pen and drew a circle, adding two smaller ones inside of it and then lines for a body, arms and legs. She paused, finally tracing an impossibly large smile.

“That’s my daddy,” Emily Collazo said, printing her name underneath.

It was another Monday night in their York home, cartoon characters bounding around the TV and a little coat hanging by the door, under a shelf with candles and a rosary. That 4-year-old girl slid down from the desk chair and hopped across the living room to show her mother the picture.

Claudia Collazo in 2006, when she stopped to pick up take-out in York.

That was before his military service, before a year he spent in Afghanistan. That was before the roadside bombs, and the buddies flown home.

Back then, the pair would talk on the computer half the night. They dated for six months in 2007, Claudia said.

He asked her to marry him on New Year’s Eve.

Claudia watched that soldier cradle baby Emily in his arms, and when he left for Afghanistan last fall she waved. The quiet sobs came later.

Yet while he was gone, she helped to build a new house through a unique Habitat for Humanity program. She worked hundreds of community service hours.

She waited.

And on Friday, Sgt. Michael Collazo came home.

4-year-old Emily Collazo is held by her father, Michael, and stands in the living room of their new home with her mother and his wife Claudia on Friday. Claudia surprised Michael with the Habitat home after he came home from serving a year in Afghanistan. YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS–JASON PLOTKIN

***

Michael had been acting strangely all day.

It was 2007 and he was supposed to help make food for a party, Claudia said, but ended up disappearing almost all day. She was not pleased.

Finally, in front of everybody on New Year’s Eve, Michael told Claudia he had to ask her something.

He got down on one knee.

“Everything just stopped,” Claudia said. “I just stood there.”

And then she said yes.

Life spun forward and just a few weeks later Michael was kissing Claudia goodbye, off to boot camp. Then he was by her side in a hospital room, holding their baby in his arms.

Emily, Claudia said, is daddy’s girl.

“He never even minded the diapers,” she said.

Father and daughter would spend hours at home, playing video games together. Michael would tuck Emily in at night. He’d read bedtime stories, Claudia said, sometimes the same ones over and over until he’d fall quietly to sleep there by the girl’s side.

“Not a lot of dads are like that anymore,” she said.

***

The 668th Engineering Company left for Afghanistan, via Fort Bliss, Texas, last November.

The group, part of Operation Enduring Freedom, was to be part of the rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, with members showing locals how to rebuild war-torn infrastructure.

Michael Collazo, then 26, was among them.

“I wanted to be able to say I did it,” Michael Collazo said.

The unit spent this past year teaching Afghan citizens how to build homes, Collazo said. The soldiers demonstrated everything from carpentry to masonry work, providing step-by-step instructions for people often eager to learn, he said.

It was hot, and dusty, Collazo said. And every day he looked at a calendar with pictures of his wife and daughter.

Stationed on a base in southern Afghanistan, the soldiers were relatively secure, though the dangers in-country are all too real, Collazo said.

Claudia Collazo said her husband told one story about friends who were the victims of a roadside bomb. One man lost his feet in the explosion, she said. He was flown home.

“I didn’t even know the guy,” she said, “but I was crying.”

***

Emily Collazo peeked through the back window of the car on Friday, holding a book of kids’ Bible verses in one hand and waving with the other.

4-year-old Emily Collazo squeezes out from inside the embrace of her father, Michael, and mother Claudia as they greeted him at BWI airport outside Baltimore, Md. on Friday. In the background is Michael’s mother Carmen, who joined other family members in greeting him at the airport after he served a year in Afghanistan. YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS–JASON PLOTKIN

It was time to meet her dad at the airport.

Emily and her mother were both up early, preparing for the trip to BWI airport. The two did their hair and left the Fahs Street home of Claudia’s parents, where they’ve been staying for the past few months. Claudia was too nervous to eat.

The journey, she said, has been a long one.

For the past six months, Claudia has been working the third shift at the Starbucks roasting plant in Manchester Township. She gets Emily ready and off to preschool, then catches a few hours of sleep. Then there’s playtime with Emily, a short nap, and it’s back to work, Claudia said.

“It’s a struggle, I guess,” she said.

And there’s been more to do.

Claudia and Michael heard a year ago about the Veterans Build 2012 program, offered through York’s Habitat for Humanity.

York’s Habitat director, Debbie Krout-Althoff, said the yearlong process brought together the local veterans’ community. The house was built for a veteran, largely by local veterans recruited from area VFWs and other service organizations.

After an application process — and 450 hours of community service — Claudia Collazo officially qualified for that new home she helped to build on Company Street. There will be a ceremony on Sunday for the Collazos and another family receiving a home, and they will likely move in next week, Krout-Althoff said.

Thanks to Claudia’s dedication and the local volunteers, Krout-Althoff said, the project was done ahead of schedule, in time for Michael’s homecoming.

“The veterans have just gone above and beyond to make sure these two families have a home,” she said. “They really stepped up to help one of their own.”

***

Between an airport gift shop and a baggage carousel, the family stood silently behind their banner, with the words “welcome home.” Emily Collazo slumped down on the floor, then hopped up, then once more eyed the passengers streaming past.

A woman walking by smiled down at the girl, then at the picture on the banner, the wheel of her suitcase wobbling as she disappeared into the crowd.

“Oh my God,” Claudia Collazo said, her phone buzzing, “we’re at the wrong gate.”

From there, it was a race.

Grandparents folded the banner and an aunt spun her stroller, heading toward baggage claim 14. Emily grabbed her mother’s hand, pulling her forward.

They moved past signs for taxis and limousine service and on by another gift shop, past rows of mirrored columns that smiled back at a 4-year-old girl and around another corner.

And there he was.

Sgt. Michael Collazo stood by a newsstand, his pack still hefted on his shoulders as they came.

He hugged his mother, and she cried. He hugged his wife, and she struggled to let him go long enough to look into his eyes.

He bent, then, and picked up his little girl. He kissed her on the cheek, and whispered in her ear.

For a long time, no one spoke.

4-year-old Emily Collazo draws a family picture to give to her father, Michael, who was coming home after serving a year in Afghanistan. YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS–JASON PLOTKIN

Eventually, the group drove home to York, set to surprise that soldier with the new house he didn’t think was ready yet. It was, and family led a tour of the Company Street home, which smells of fresh drywall and just-cut wood.

“I didn’t think it would be this big,” Michael Collazo said, wide-eyed. “It’s amazing.”

A Habitat official spoke proudly of the project, the first of its kind in York. Someone ordered food — that hamburger the soldier’s been craving — and everyone smiled through interviews. There was a second home tour, and more people flooded in through the open door.

Sgt. Michael Collazo found his little girl behind the crush of media, seated alone in front of the door with the doll he’d brought her. A November wind pulled at her open coat.

“Let me zip that up, baby,” he said, kissing her forehead. “It’s cold out there.”

To help
York’s Habitat for Humanity group still needs about $15,000 to officially complete work at the Collazos’ new home, said group director Debbie Krout-Althoff.

Anyone who’d like to donate can find more information at York Habitat for Humanity.

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