By Pat Ciarrocchi

SHAMONG TOWNSHIP, NJ (CBS) — Wearing pigtails and carrying roses in her arms, Ryleigh Gardner, a third grader at Shamong Elementary School, has a smile that can make a grown-up teary.

Her reaction to a big surprise today was priceless.

“Like … it was sort of like an explosion… ’cause it just like blew up my mind. I never knew he would actually come here,” she says.

“He” is Ryleigh’s older brother, Navy Pay Officer Second Class, Frank “Tommy” Schaffer.

Deployed most recently in Japan, “Tommy,” as his family calls him, hasn’t been home for three years. He and Ryleigh Skype and Face-Time… but face to face hasn’t happened in three years, until today.

On this last day of school, Ryleigh and her school-mates were invited to the gym. They sat cross-legged, like they do at any other assembly.

Backstage, what they and Ryleigh didn’t know was that Tommy was waiting to become a big surprise for his little sister.

“It’s pretty rough, you know…being away from family, especially a younger sibling,’ said Schaffer. “You know… being away so long, you just strive to get that connection back.”

Ryleigh never lost the connection.

A school project got the children thinking about a role model in their young lives. Ryleigh chose her big brother, a U. S. Navy sailor. Still hidden behind the curtain, Tommy read her words, while an unsuspecting Ryleigh, who had been called up to the stage, listened. Her expression was a little bewildered.

“As long as I can remember, my brother has always been there for me… he is super brave,” read Schaffer. “He is giving his life to protect all American families. That why my brother is my role model.”

Schaffer couldn’t contain his emotions.

The brother she never expected to see came out with flowers, and hugs and tears.

“When he popped out, it was like, ‘Wow!’ I can’t believe he’s here,” said Ryleigh.

Neither could their mother, Deann Gardner. Military service is a shared family sacrifice.

“I know my little one misses him,” said Deann. “And I just — you know — am really happy that they’re together.”

So are Ryleigh and Tommy.

Tommy has plans, too. “You know we’re going to out, hang out together, just me and her, so it will be real good.”

As for Ryleigh? “I can’t stop smiling…”

Neither could we.