Outside her Mount Ephraim elementary school, little Kristen Coffman saw scores of classmates and teachers holding tiny flags — and two fire trucks with a much larger banner suspended between tall ladders. A motorcade with wailing sirens and loud rumbling motorcycles passed beneath it and pulled up a few feet away.
This was a big day for Mary Bray Elementary — and for Kristen, who thought she had been chosen to give a bouquet of red, white, and blue flowers to Mount Ephraim Mayor Joe Wolk as part of a military appreciation day.
Instead, the freckled 8-year-old was stunned to see her mother, Army Lt. Candice Bujak, briefly home from Afghanistan after nearly a year.
Tears quickly welled in her eyes, and only one word managed to escape her lips: "Mommy!"
Mother and daughter fell into each other's arms as school staff, and other town residents cried, took photos, applauded, whistled, and cheered. Then the uniformed Bujak turned to hold her 16-month-old son, Ryan Bujak, who clasped a small American flag.
"Wow!" said Bujak, a single mother who returns May 7 to her transportation duties in Kabul. "I wasn't expecting this. ... I lost it in the car" when seeing the reception.
She was going to surprise her second grader at the school ahead of her scheduled homecoming this weekend, but found herself overwhelmed by the welcoming festivities, planned over the last several months by an entire community.
School and town officials were helped by the Mount Ephraim Police and Fire Departments, as well as the Oaklyn and Audubon Fire Departments, local businesses, and military support groups such as the American Legion, Yellow Ribbon Club, Warriors Watch Riders, and Nam Knights.
Flowers and balloons were donated. Even the Mount Ephraim residents of Sixth Avenue, where Kristen lives with her grandfather, helped welcome Bujak by decorating the block with flags and signs.
At the school, the lieutenant and her children walked down a red-paper "carpet" past balloons to a gymnasium where patriotic art created by Kristen's classmates decorated the walls. The Lee Greenwood song "Proud to Be an American" played over speakers.
"Yes, Lieutenant, you are an American hero," said George Tencza, a member of the Yellow Ribbon Club in Marlton, during a gym ceremony where the soldier and her daughter were presented with large yellow ribbons and a plaque bearing the emblem of the Army. "Welcome home. ... Thank you for your unselfish dedication."
Bujak, who grew up in Camden's Fairview section, graduated from Camden County Vocational School, joined the Marines in 1995, then switched to the Army in 2005, and is stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. She has served in Japan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and is expecting to be promoted this summer to captain.
"Oorah, Marine!" said Marine Col. Al Bancroft of the Camden County Veterans Affairs Office. "She may be in an Army uniform, but her heart is with the Marine Corps. ... This is something, Candice, you will never, never forget."
Bancroft and Jack Conners, director of the county's veterans affairs, gave Bujak the Camden County Medal in appreciation of her service. Bujak also was welcomed by Wolk, who issued a proclamation declaring Thursday as "Lt. Candice Bujak Day" in Mount Ephraim.
School officials began planning the event in December, partly at the urging of a teacher's aide, Jean Meloni, who lives on the same street as Kristen and gives her a ride to school while her mother is away.
"Jean and I started talking early about having the kids see something of this magnitude honoring military families, the commitment of parents — and showing respect for this," said Joe Rafferty, superintendent of the Mount Ephraim School District, who worked on the project with Amy Francis, the district's supervisor of special services. "We said, 'How can we make a special day for Kristen and the community?'
"Out of that, we decided to honor her mom and all the military," he said. "We started hatching this, and people started volunteering."
Thursday's event was "pieces of a puzzle that came together," said Pat Corbett, secretary at Mary Bray Elementary and a neighbor on the block where Kristen lives. "You didn't know the end result, but sometimes that's the best way."
Kristen had become increasingly excited as the weekend approached, knowing that her mother was returning home. On the way to school, she told Meloni, "Mommy is coming soon."
After Kristen and her mother were reunited, Rafferty told the youngster, "Mommy came home a little sooner than you thought."
Bujak thanked the event's organizers for the warm welcome and her parents for "taking care of my chipmunks." Her father, mother, and sister were keeping an eye on Ryan at the ceremony.
Then, Bujak turned to Kristen: "I thank you for supporting Mommy and letting me do this, letting me be a soldier."
What is Bujak going to do over the next several days before returning to Afghanistan?
"Whatever my little girl wants to do," she said. "It's all about family right now. I didn't think [what I did] was that big a deal. I just did my job."