JACKSONVILLE, Fla -- One Sailor and his family especially enjoyed the Jacksonville Jaguars hosting a military appreciation game against the Indianapolis Colts at EverBank Field, Nov. 8.
While the action on the field was the main focus for more than 60,000 screaming fans, a moment that had nothing to do with football may have produced the loudest cheers. The entire stadium was on its feet as Construction Mechanic 1st Class William Cook ran out of the tunnel to meet his wife and daughters during halftime.
Cook, who is assigned to Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CMBU) 202 on board Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, spent the last 10 months deployed to Afghanistan as an individual augmentee (IA). He had not seen his family since last Christmas, and his family was completely unaware that he was coming home. But thanks to the Jacksonville Jaguars and his chain of command, he was able to reunite with his family earlier than expected. The event was even more special to Williams and his family because it just happened to be his daughter's 21st birthday.
"I'm still in shock. I really never expected to see my father tonight," said Kasey, Cook's daughter. "It's definitely a really special thing to be able to get together tonight because I didn't expect to be able to celebrate this birthday together. But this is as good of a birthday present as I could ask for."
The military appreciation game was sponsored by the City of Jacksonville and the Jaguars as part of the Week of Valor, a city-sponsored initiative designed to showcase Jacksonville as one of the most military-friendly cities in the country. Cook was informed by his senior enlisted advisor about three weeks ago that he was selected to come home early and participate in the event. He was originally scheduled to return next week, but arrived in Jacksonville Wednesday, instead.
"The whole thing was overwhelming...it really took me by surprise," he said. "I wasn't really sure if my daughter was going to be able to make it because she's in the process of moving, but I think it was really cool for her to have me home for her birthday."
According to Cook, it was a real challenge to keep his family from realizing that he was still overseas throughout the past two days, but thanks to social media, he was able to pull it off. They thought he was in Kuwait going through the Navy's Warrior Transition Program, which is designed to ease the transition for Sailors returning from deployment.
"Social media came into play because the guys over there kept tagging me in their posts, saying, 'Hey, we're in Kuwait hanging out watching movies with Lt. O'Connell and Chief Berg,' you know, so we were able to keep it a big secret until the game."
The post-deployment family reunion was the third of its kind since Cook enlisted in the Navy in 1995. He was deployed twice previously to Iraq and Afghanistan, including a tour in 2005 where he was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon.
A native of Hopactong, N.J., Cook said he never really considered the Navy as a career when he first enlisted.
"I didn't have a great job, and I wanted to do something better with my life. I heard about the Seabees, thought that it was something I could do, and I've been doing it now for 17 years. I've had some pretty good tours, and I look at it as probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.
Throughout his career, Cook has been stationed in Norfolk; Charleston, S.C.; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and served multiple times in Port Hueneme, Calif., and Okinawa, Japan. He volunteered for his third IA assignment shortly after reporting to his current position at CMBU 202.
"I was the maintenance manager for the detachment here, and I don't like sitting for too long. I heard about these provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) that go out and do a lot of stuff with the Department of Agriculture and USAID (United States Agency for International Development), going out and trying to make Afghanistan a better place," he said.
After completing PRT training, Cook reported to Afghanistan, where he spent most of the past year supporting reconstruction efforts. After 10 months, he flew into Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport on Wednesday for out-processing and then on to NAS Jacksonville the following day.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to come home a week early, and I'd like to thank the city of Jacksonville for making this happen," he said. "I think it's great program that the NFL (National Football League) has with the NFL Salutes the Military. It's an honor to be selected. You don't get many of these opportunities, and I thank them for their efforts to get me home."
Now that he is home, Cook is looking to take some time off and relax, but life at home also comes with its own challenges, he said.
"I'm planning on taking a lot of time off, but I do have a kitchen to remodel, and my wife is waiting for me to get home and get on that. I've got a back yard to finish up and some housework to do, but I thoroughly enjoy doing that stuff, so I'm looking forward to getting started."