FORT STEWART, GA. — Secret Santa is Army wife Lauri Brownlee's best present this year.
In an elaborate, undercover ploy dubbed Operation Santa Claus, Maj. Jimmy Brownlee surprised his wife and children Wednesday by coming home from Iraq in a convertible Mustang and dressed as Santa.
The 15-year soldier from Charleston started hatching the covert operation about a month ago.
He told his wife he wouldn't be coming home for Christmas but that he had arranged for someone dressed as Santa to deliver presents he had sent home to her and their children.
"This is our first Christmas apart," a teary-eyed Lauri Brownlee said, not knowing he was en route. "We have been apart on Thanksgiving and birthdays and other holidays, but never at Christmas. This is his favorite holiday. But I understand. I don't want the children to think that this is a Christmas without their daddy. I just want them to be happy.
"It's not something I look forward to, but we are prepared to go through Christmas without him. He's doing what he was born to do. He found his calling and he adores it. I can't imagine him doing anything else."
She arranged to get the children out of school early to meet Santa.
She didn't know her husband had let the media in on the secret.
He told her The Post and Courier, which has been interviewing him weekly since October via telephone from his base south of Baghdad, and a Savannah TV station wanted to do a story on a military family whose husband was not coming home for Christmas.
It turned out to be two TV crews, one from NBC's "Today Show" and another from "Inside Edition." The local TV crew was a ruse, but Lauri did not know that.
With the media waiting for Santa's arrival, the thought crossed her mind that her husband might be coming home, she later said. But she dismissed it.
"There's no way he's going to come home without telling me," she convinced herself.
She even sent all of his gifts to Iraq three weeks ago so he would get them in time for Christmas.
"I told you not to send me anything," he said to her after their tearful reunion. "That's OK. You still have five days," he said with a laugh before she elbowed him.
When Brownlee pulled up in the cul-de-sac driveway of their base housing in the red sleigh convertible with garland around the windshield and a wreath on the front, he blew the horn. His daughter, Emma, 11, and son, Trey, 7, flew out the front door. They had been told that Santa was coming so they wouldn't wander off to play with friends on the near-70-degree, sun-splashed afternoon.
Their mother wasn't far behind.
Santa popped out of the car with a bag of wrapped presents.
After a few hearty ho-ho-ho's and big "Merrrrrry Christmas!" he asked the children in a disguised voice, "Where is your father?"
Not yet realizing it was their dad, they responded, "He's in Iraq."
He asked, "What would you say to him if you could?"
"I miss him," Emma responded.
"Here's something for you," Santa said to the children. "I hear you have been very nice this year."
Then he looked up.
"I knew it was him when I looked in his eyes," Lauri Brownlee said.
He yanked down his fake white beard and she fell into his red-suited arms, kissing him passionately after nearly eight months apart, and then holding him so close it would have been nearly impossible to pry them apart.
"I knew when you saw my eyes it would all be over with," said Brownlee as he started stripping out of his Santa suit on the sidewalk to reveal his uniform.
Brownlee, a public affairs officer at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, originally wasn't going to come home. The senior officers had decided to stay behind so as many enlisted men as possible could spend the holidays at home.
Two things happened to change that. His wife was having a really bad day on Thanksgiving and was crying on the telephone. "This is going to be the saddest Christmas ever," he remembered her saying. Then a slot came open for him to leave. He immediately began plotting his secret mission, which concluded after a four-day, 8,000-mile trek, presumably without a sleigh, from Iraq.
"It was kind of a little shock and awe going on," Lauri Brownlee said. "I wish he would have at least told me. I could have been prepared. I would have cooked something. I could have kept the surprise for the children."
After getting elbowed again by his wife, Brownlee chuckled, "I think Operation Santa Claus went off well."
Then he reflected, "It had to be meant to be. It all fell into place. It feels wonderful to be home."
He'll be with his family for 18 days.