Deployed dad surprises kids by showing up in Santa photo

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SAN DIEGO – A Navy sailor from Coronado returned home early from a yearlong deployment in the Middle East to surprise his kids during their photo shoot with Santa.

After traveling 41 hours from Bahrain, Rob Stella, a Chief who has served in the U.S. Navy for 23 years, went straight to Fashion Valley Mall, where he and his wife helped arrange the epic photobomb with Santa and mall staff.

The timing gets even better -- it was a day before his daughter Maddie’s 10th birthday.

“I was kind of confused at first, and then I was like, wait, that’s my dad! And then I just freaked out. I was like, oh my gosh,” Maddie said.

The holiday homecoming brought onlookers to tears.

“I’m just glad I popped up behind the right family,” Stella said.

This time, Stella said the deployments are done for good, as he plans to retire. He said he is back to enjoying his family once again.

“Just waking up and making them breakfast in the morning and hanging out with them,” Stella said.

“It’s just cool to have him back, to have it complete,” Stella’s son said.

But his work isn’t over just yet.

“I have a honey-do list and it’s extensive after a year,” Stella laughed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the way people across the country paused to share the video, which has gone viral since it first aired.

“I had no idea it was going to take off like that,” Stella said. “It’s pretty awesome that people are getting something from that.”