Area Soldier Surprises Children At Chautauqua Mall

National Guardsman Luis Martinez-Vega surprises his four children Thursday at the Chautauqua Mall. Liangel, Lianeliz, Ziulianis and Genliel all wished for their father to come home for the holidays P-J photo by Eric Zavinski

LAKEWOOD — It’s not every day in Chautauqua County that a father is able to return home from the military and surprise his four children, but with the help of Santa Claus, that’s exactly what Jamestown resident Luis Martinez-Vega was able to do.

The local branch of the Joseph Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project helped mobilize the event Thursday. Organizers had volunteers in red sweaters hide Martinez, a member of the National Guard, from view while his children — 11-year-old Liangel, 9-year-old Lianeliz, 6-year-old Ziulianis and 3-year-old Genliel — shared their holiday wishes with Santa Claus at Chautauqua Mall.

Santa asked what they wanted for Christmas, and naturally, their dad was brought up. None of them expected their father, who has been away training for three months in Georgia, to show up. The children were instructed to close their eyes while Martinez-Vega walked down the aisle through the North Pole set. When they opened their eyes, tears immediately began to flow,and all four children exclaimed and ran in for a fierce hug with their dad they won’t ever get used to being without.

Liangel Martinez-Vega, the oldest son, wrote a letter to Santa and asked for his father to come home for the holidays.

Luis Martinez-Vega pictured with his wife and four children at the Chautauqua Mall on Thursday. Martinez-Vega has spent the last three months training in Georgia. P-J photos by Eric Tichy

His dad was overjoyed when he heard he could come home for the holiday season, and he’ll get to stay with his family into the New Year.

The Martinez-Vega family has never been separated for more than a day. Wife and mother Angeliz spent Thanksgiving as her only holiday apart from her husband, to whom she’s been married for 13 years. The Joseph Dwyer Program volunteers supported her emotionally and helped her with the reunion, which is something Program Coordinator Cindy Reidy said they’ve never done before.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Melodie Paladino, volunteer and member of Veterans of Modern Warfare and the United Veterans Council of Jamestown. “This doesn’t usually happen around here.”

Named after notable Iraq War veteran, the Joseph Dwyer Program most often helps veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injuries and the affected families. Members relished in welcoming Martinez home and thanking him for his service.

All four children expressed how excited and happy they were after the surprise. The younger ones were too shocked with emotion to say much, but Liangel Martinez-Vega talked about how he didn’t see the surprise coming.

“I was really surprised,” Liangel Martinez-Vega said. “I didn’t expect this to happen.”

Luis Martinez-Vega said he’s inspired to serve by the strength and support of his family. Military service has been an aspiration of his for a long time, but it doesn’t come without sacrifice. He said he misses his family every day and that he’s only been able to talk to Angeliz and his children a few times throughout training. He said he wants to be a better role model for them, but for now, he enjoys what he described as one of the happiest days of his life.

“Seeing (Angeliz) and the kids was a big relief,” Luis Martinez-Vega said.

Angeliz Martinez-Vega said afterward that she was grateful they were able to surprise their children. She said her husband left earlier than expected this fall, so their dad coming home early was the perfect treat.

“We wanted to do something big for the kids,” Angeliz Martinez-Vega said. “Seeing (my husband) today was pretty emotional.”