Cassie Olson was surprised by her daughter Sarah’s unannounced homecoming. The U.S. Army private joined the military two weeks after high school and will be trained as an air traffic controller. Her father, John Olson, right, helped arrange the surprise. (Tin Nguyen/Maryland Independent)

Cassie Olson did not expect to have her whole family home for the holidays this year, and the Welcome woman anticipated meeting only her husband, John, for lunch at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in La Plata on Dec. 20.

From the restaurant’s kitchen, U.S. Army Pvt. Sarah Olson walked to the table where her parents were seated, wearing her fatigues and carrying a tray of food.

For mother and daughter, it was a moment of quiet recognition and strong emotion. When Sarah Olson arrived at the table, her mom, who immediately realized the situation, embraced her daughter while crying quietly, ending a six-month separation.

In November, Sarah Olson had told her mother that she would not be able to return from her post at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where the 2012 Lackey High School graduate is training to be an air traffic controller, for the holidays because she had to remain on duty.

“I just thought she’d like the surprise,” Sarah Olson said. “I’d told them before, in October, that I was going to come home, and then I had this idea and I called my dad and I told him what I wanted to do.”

John Olson said that while his wife labored under the impression that the whole family wouldn’t be together for the holidays, he secretly was arranging his daughter’s travel plans.

“I lied about it. I lied several times,” he said. “It broke my heart, because one night we were out sitting on our porch and, out of the blue, Sarah called her mother and told her the story she’d come up with, and Cassie broke down. The hardest thing I ever did was not tell her what was happening.”

Cassie Olson, who has her daughter’s dog tags around her neck and never removes them, said she is beside herself to have her daughter home.

“She’s a special kid,” she said. “I’m so happy to have her home. When she left for basic training, it was hard on all of us.”

Chick-fil-A of La Plata owner and operator John Flatley said John Olson approached him Dec. 17 with his plan of what he wanted for his daughter’s surprise homecoming, the first the restaurant has hosted.

“I wasn’t sure what Cassie’s reaction would be like. I was prepared for a lot of screaming and jumping,” Flatley said. “Her response was very quiet. It was a very tender moment. We try to join people where they are. We want to be a part of what’s going on with our customers and friends. This could have happened anywhere, but they’ll recall for years to come that it happened right here.”

Sarah Olson said she planned to be home for two weeks.