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David Berlin left his home to serve as a physician assistant with the Navy. Now, 405 days later, he is home, and St. John’s School surprised him last Friday with a patriotic welcome.

The lieutenant thought he was visiting the school to talk to a class about his time serving in Afghanistan. But several of his wife’s friends had planned a full-blown assembly to honor Berlin and servicemen like him.

“This school’s been so great with my kids,” he said, adding that their happiness added a layer of comfort to his deployment.

Berlin, who lives in California with his wife and three children, signed up for service five days before he turned 42, the age when he would have been ineligible to join the active military. He had worked in a private practice for 18 years in western Pennsylvania. After his enlistment he was assigned to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in 2010. The rest of his family moved to St. Mary’s in 2011.

Berlin knew that physician assistants are likely to be deployed, and that there would be a good chance he could end up in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I’d always thought about going into the military,” he said, adding that his father was in the Navy.

He shipped out to western Afghanistan last winter.

“A lot was going on” and it was not always a safe situation, he said.

He said that there were times he felt generally comfortable and relatively safe, but all too often bombs and gunshots going on around where he was stationed offered grim reminders of war.

“You see death and trauma and pain,” he said. He performed surgeries and other advanced medical procedures, often on Afghan military.

“My role is to work with the Afghan medical people in the community” and help them establish their infrastructure, he said.

After leaving his family Oct. 2, 2011, for several months of training for his overseas assignment, Berlin said goodbye to his wife and children and shipped out to Afghanistan in February. He arrived home Nov. 13.

“We were worried sometimes,” his son, Jason Berlin, who is a freshman at St. Mary’s Ryken High School, said. “We were just wishing he would come home.”

The lieutenant’s wife, Cindy Berlin, chatted with him by video conference every couple of days. Because of the time difference, the three children — Jason along with siblings Brooke and Ben, who go to St. John’s School — were able to video chat with their father on most weekends. “He was really happy to talk to us. He said it was the best time when he was there,” Jason said.

Family friend Beth Cooper came up with the idea to surprise David Berlin at the school last week.

“As soon as I mentioned it, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Cooper said. They decked out the school’s gymnasium with patriotic ballons and banners and the students practiced a few songs in Berlin’s honor.

Cooper, a Navy veteran, said that the acknowledgment not only helps those who served, but it also helps the children because they are able to see servicemen or women in person.

“This is pretty powerful,” David Berlin said of the students’ welcome.

Berlin is halfway through his six-year commitment to the Navy, he said. He and his family are scheduled to spend the remaining three years, starting in July, stationed in Italy.

jyeatman@somdnews.com