Despite countless times he had faced danger, sitting backstage at the “Sirens of TI” show at Treasure Island U.S. Air Force Capt. John Costa couldn’t believe he was nervous.
“I had butterflies in my stomach,” he said. “I have never done anything like this before.”
Costa, a fighter pilot who has served in Iraq and flown F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16s in Afghanistan, faced a new nerve-racking mission — appearing on stage in front of a crowd to surprise his daughters.
What led Costa to this night?
It all started with a desire to serve his country.
“Service means a great deal to me,” Costa said. “My grandfather was in the military. It always made him extremely proud to be a part of something bigger than himself. It made him proud to be a part of a team with a unified purpose.”
Costa was born in Massachusetts but moved to Henderson when he was 14.
After falling behind in high school, he realized he probably wasn’t eligible for college scholarships, causing him to rethink his post-graduation plans.
He talked with a recruiter and thought military service was a great alternative.
Costa graduated in 1997 from Green Valley High School and joined the U.S. Air Force.
“I left pretty much immediately after high school,” he said.
Before he left, Costa met his future wife, Lori.
“I never really asked a girl out before,” he said. “I could immediately tell there was something special about her.”
His one hope was to be stationed locally.
“The recruiter told me that 90 percent of people end up at Nellis (Air Force Base) or somewhere close, like California or Arizona,” he said.
Costa ended up in the 10 percent and was sent to South Dakota.
During his career, he lived anywhere from England to Texas. He also went through fighter pilot training.
“It was a dream come true,” Costa said. “It was something I never thought I’d get a chance to do.”
He did his training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas learning to fly F-15E Strike Eagles. In 2008 and 2010, he flew in Afghanistan.
He made his way back to Nellis Air Force Base in 2010.
Other than being able to serve his country, he was able to enjoy other benefits such as paying for his degree in business administration.
But the downside was time away from his family.
In the nearly 15 years, he has been through six deployments — most four to six months long.
“And that doesn’t count your monthlong times away,” he said.
But his most recent deployment to Qatar, where he offered support to an operation in Afghanistan, was a yearlong assignment.
“It was a challenge,” he said. “You are thousands of miles away from your family.”
Even though his wife was accustomed to long periods he was away, a year seemed daunting.
“We have done, 60 and 90 and 120 and 220 days,” she said. “But nothing compares to a full year.”
Each birthday — first his wife’s then his daughters’ — went by, making it harder.
On May 27, just a few weeks before he was scheduled to return, Costa found out he could come home early.
“I wanted to just show up at the house and surprise my family,” he said.
His commander had a different idea.
“He wanted to make it memorable for the girls,” Costa said.
Costa had seen Internet stories of fathers dressed in their military uniforms surprising tear-filled children at anything from baseball games to parties. He never thought he’d be one of them.
His wife was in on the plan.
“The commander called me and asked what my plans were for when he came home,” Lori Costa said.
Costa couldn’t describe his thoughts on the flight home, knowing he would not only be seeing his family but also surprising his daughters.
“It was hard taking them to school, knowing what was going to happen,” Lori said. “Since it was the last day of school, I told them we should go see a show on the Strip.”
The girls watched the show June 4, which followed with one of the sirens talking about military service and all the audience members who contribute.
“My daughter turned to me and said, ‘That’s us,’ ” Lori said.
But the announcer went on to describe the special return of one man. With each descriptive sentence, Costa’s oldest daughter began to put the pieces together until her father was standing just a short distance in front of the family.
“And it was immediately (followed by) tears,” Lori said.
All that time serving his country taking him away from the people he loved didn’t matter in this one moment.
In the arms of his wife and two daughters, Costa was home.
“I spent months waiting to see them,” he said. “It was overwhelming knowing I’d be home for a long time.”
Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5201.