Maj. Dan Wood was showered with thunderous applause as he rounded every corner of Ellicott Mills Middle School.
The Howard County school's technical education teacher, who recently returned home from a stint in Afghanistan, marveled at the sight of students, faculty and staff who lined up Monday on both sides of the school's hallways and, in a ritual usually staged for students departing for high school, formed a gantlet of praise.
A member of the Maryland Army National Guard, Wood has taught at the school for nearly 20 years. Still, the hero's welcome was more than Wood anticipated, and he said it capped off all the support he and his family received from the Ellicott Mills community during his time away from home.
"I'm a little blown away by it. I wasn't expecting that kind of reception. It's very heartwarming," said Wood, 50, of Columbia, who served for nearly a year in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force, which assists the Afghan government with security and stability. He returned to the U.S. in late October.
Wood, who has served in the military for 30 years, said that he was also deployed to Uzbekistan seven years ago. Since then, however, he has gotten married and has two preschool children and a stepdaughter in high school.
He added, "My wife is Russian; we got married five years ago, so she's still a little new to the country and didn't have that support network." He credited Ellicott Mills Assistant Principal Nancy J. Eisenhuth for putting together a support group via the local parent association to assist his family while he was away.
"That was absolutely crucial. We had a couple of things that went on here that was really helpful for them to be there," said Wood, adding that while he was away his family discovered that his youngest child has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes neurological difficulties.
"I learned about that during deployment," said Wood, "and it was good to have Nancy here to take [my wife] to the hospital with the child on a number of different occasions."
Eisenhuth said she accompanied Wood's wife, Elina, and stepdaughter Nellie, who was born in Russia, to Baltimore to receive Nellie's U.S. citizenship.
"I drove them down and we celebrated," she said. She added that she and other members of the Ellicott Mills community "were Dan's stand-in family while he was away."
Before Wood took to the hallways for the ovation, he spoke to the school during a morning television program taped inside the Ellicott Mills media center. He thanked the principal, Mike Goins, for making certain that he'd be allowed to return to his job at the school.
"That's not a given. I've had a couple of colleagues in different counties who had real issues," Wood said later. "It's a real gift. I'm happy to be back in the school that I have worked in for so long. I've developed a lot of friendships here. It would have been tough to come back and try to come up in a new situation and have new friends."
Goins said he consulted county school officials about making sure that Wood was able to return to Ellicott Mills.
"It was more bringing to people's awareness of here's someone serving a second tour," Goins said, "and the timing of it is such that when he comes back he is guaranteed a job in the county, but couldn't we be a little bit open about keeping the job he had. It's home for him, and he's been here a long time."
Asked what it was like to have Wood back, Goins said, "It's a thing of knowing he's home and he's safe. And you have this tremendous respect for him honoring his commitment, knowing what it was putting him through."
Students who took technical education classes with Wood said they are glad to see him back.
"It's more fun with him around," said eighth-grader Erica Weaver. "We get to build cool stuff."
"When he was gone, all we did was play with Legos," said eighth-grader Adam Robinson. "I think it was more fun with him because we got to work with other tools."
Wood says that he usually keeps his military life and school life separate, and added, "This is the first time that they've actually collided." He said he is pondering what to tell his students about his military work and experiences.
"I'm going to talk about the differences in technology, and how it can be used or abused," said Wood. "You have the Taliban, which has an ancient view on things, but they're combining that with new technology, and I see that as a dangerous thing.
"The country, in a weird way, is like us, a melting pot of different cultures," Wood said about Afghanistan. "The people I worked with there are intelligent, wonderful people, who love their families. They're like us in that respect. All we hear is bad news coming out of Afghanistan, but there are a lot of wonderful people and wonderful things going on."