DAYTON " Gabriel Hurles was so engrossed in the cupcakes his mom brought to class for his sixth birthday Wednesday that he didn't notice the enormous wrapped box that came in shortly after.
"That's one big giant present," his classmate Jacob, 6, alerted him. "See what you got, Gabriel."
Gabriel peeled back the wrapping paper, then jumped back in surprise, letting out a yelp.
"Hi daddy," he said.
Then he let the rest of the Sutro Elementary School kindergarten class in on the surprise: "It's my dad."
Spc. Casey Hurles, 23, stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, hadn't seen his son since he left in June for his second tour in Iraq.
For months, Hurles has been planning to surprise his little boy, who lives with his mother in Dayton. When he learned his leave would coincide with Gabriel's birthday, a plan was hatched.
Hurles left Iraq Tuesday, flew into Reno, then went to his parents' home in Dayton. It wasn't hard to stay hidden, he said, because he slept most of the day to make up for the jet lag.
Waiting in the box, though, he got butterflies.
"I always get them when I see him," Hurles said.
When Gabriel pulled back the wrapping paper, the surprise was mutual.
"He gets bigger every time I see him," Hurles said. "It was just a rush of emotion."
Gabriel's mom, Jackie Holocker, 25, felt a similar rush.
"He's my son. I feel anything he does," she said. "I'm excited when he's excited. I think it's wonderful."
After Hurles sat down and ate a cupcake with the birthday boy, teacher Dawn VanSickle presented him with a banner from the class that read, "Welcome Home. Thank you for your service."
She said she was happy to arrange the reunion in her classroom.
"One of the first things (Gabriel) shared about himself was that his dad was in Iraq and that he was waiting for his dad to come home," she said. "He talks about his dad all the time."
Hurles, a mechanic in the 1st Cavalry Division, joined the Army four years ago. He completed one tour in Iraq and is seven months into his second tour. He expects to finish sometime between June and September.
Although he talks to his son almost daily by phone, Hurles said he is especially happy to spend the next 17 days together.
Gabriel said he looks forward to playing with his dad, but he understands why he has to leave.
"He has to work," Gabriel said. "He works in the war."
Gabriel's grandparents, Darrell and Karen Hurles, and uncle Joel Hurles were also there.
The crowd, Karen said, may have intimidated the usually rambunctious boy.
"Usually when he sees his dad he gets very excited and jumps up and down," she said. "I think he was a little shocked with so many people."
But it's a memory she thinks he will cherish.
"His dad wanted him to have this memory because you never know what tomorrow might hold."
- Contact reporter Teri Vance at email@example.com or 881-1272.
VIDEO of the unwrapping