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Three Patterson Mill Middle and High School students received the best early Christmas present ever Wednesday – a surprise reunion with their father after his six-month deployment to the Middle East.

Army Lt. Col. Michael Karwatka, a Bel Air resident and member of the Delaware National Guard, had been assigned to the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve coordinating an international coalition's fight against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.

"We've been focused on a determined enemy, an enemy who is willing to stop at nothing to cause terror and cause death and destruction," Karwatka said Thursday.

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He cleared customs and met his wife, Amy, at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport late Tuesday afternoon, and they surprised the children in their classrooms at Patterson Mill Wednesday.

Their children are Emily, a 17-year-old senior, Travis, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, and Nathan, an 11-year-old sixth-grader. The couple worked with school administrators to set up the surprise homecoming.

"It just felt wonderful seeing the joy and relief in the students' faces, seeing their dad for the first time in months." Patterson Mill Principal Sean Abel said Thursday. "I don't think there were too many dry eyes in any of the three classrooms."

Michael Karwatka, 42, left for the Middle East on June 21, which was Father's Day, and had been scheduled to come home Dec. 23. Because he started the deployment earlier than scheduled, he was able to get home earlier than expected.

"We figured it would be a nice surprise to be able to sneak into the school and pop in on their classes," he said.

Amy Karwatka said the children "were absolutely shocked" to see their father.

Abel led the group, which included Bel Air-based photographer Mitch Lebovic, to each classroom, first Emily's, then Nathan's and, finally, Travis'.

"We wanted them to each have their own special moment with my husband," Amy said.

Amy said they visited Nathan during his social studies class on world cultures, where Michael was introduced as "an expert from the Middle East coming in to talk to them."

"My husband barely got into the classroom, and [Nathan] just jumped onto him," Amy recalled.

She said Travis told her later that "he thought he was daydreaming or hallucinating" when his father visited his gym class.

"It was so emotional and so amazing, it was great," Amy said of the moment when her husband surprised their daughter. "It was just six months of emotion coming out."

Michael Karwatka, a 1995 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, works as a civilian operations research systems analyst at Aberdeen Proving Ground. His wife is a Fallston native.

"Our family has definitely planted our roots here in Bel Air," Amy said. "It's great to be back and it's such a wonderful place to raise a family."

Michael volunteered his services to the task force against ISIS on the recommendation of a friend with whom he attended the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

He said U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, established the task force in the summer of 2014 after ISIS militants took over Mosul, Iraq, one of the nation's largest cities.

"They were starting up this effort to fight ISIS and asked if I would be willing to help, which I gladly did," he said.

The Islamic State remains in control of large portions of Iraq and Syria, and it has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist events, including the Nov.13 attack in Paris.

The husband and wife who killed 14 people in a Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., had pledged their support to ISIS.

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"We fully understood the enemy, but knowing that the enemy was willing to stop at nothing, it added an increased level of resolve [for the task force]," Michael said.

Michael said he and his team provided monthly reports to the task force's commanding general about the progress of the air and ground campaign against ISIS.

He spent much of his time in Kuwait, but he also traveled to Qatar and Iraq. Michael met with senior Iraqi military leaders and observed training of Iraqi army units.

"It's something that's going to take time, to provide them the means to first beat back ISIS and then provide security in the region," he said.

Michael said the international air campaign and the efforts by Iraqi ground troops have taken away ISIS fighters' ability to move freely around their captured territories.

"When my time there was over, it was great to be home again; I was fighting back the tears for sure, once I held them in my arms again," he said of his children.

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