Soldier’s surprise seals sister’s graduation day

By ANDREW MARTINS
Staff Writer

 Nicole Milko embraces her brother, Travis, during his surprise appearance prior to the Jackson Memorial High School graduation ceremony.  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Nicole Milko embraces her brother, Travis, during his surprise appearance prior to the Jackson Memorial High School graduation ceremony. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Standing before more than 300 of her fellow seniors a short time before graduation, Nicole Milko was told by Jackson Memorial High School officials that something she lost “quite some time ago” was being returned to her before she left the high school for the last time.

But what Nicole, 18, of Jackson, received was not a thing. It was her older brother, Travis, who sprinted down the aisle to embrace her.

The siblings had not seen each other since Travis, who is a private first class in the U.S. Army, was deployed to Afghanistan 18 months ago.

“At first I thought I was in trouble when I was called up. … But once I heard everyone cheer, I looked up and was just engulfed by my brother,” Nicole said. “It was just such a shock to see him there.”

For Nicole, who plans to join the Peace Corps after earning a degree in early childhood education, the separation from her older brother has been trying at times.

“It has been difficult because we don’t really get to talk that much, but if he had personal stuff going on, he would text me and let me know what was going on,” he said. “It’s just been hard because he has been so far away.”

Travis and Nicole’s father, William Milko, said the siblings were always close growing up. He said Travis was a protective big brother to his sister.

Two weeks prior to Nicole’s graduation on June 24, Travis and William planned out the surprise after learning the soldier would be at the nearby Joint Base McGuire- Dix-Lakehurst in time for the graduation ceremony.

“We were talking on the phone one day, and when he told me he was going to be in the area, I asked him how he would like to show up to his sister’s graduation, and he just said, ‘Absolutely, that would mean the world to her,’ ” William said.

In short order, Jackson Memorial personnel got involved and came up with a plan that would make the unexpected reunion a reality without overshadowing the graduation ceremony.

“The school did not want to have it happen during the ceremony itself, which I can understand because it really is the kids’ day. But they came up with this other plan,” William said.

Travis, who graduated from Jackson Memorial in 2012, said he now expects to remain in the United States for the next few years.

After being separated from his family and serving in the harsh environment of Afghanistan, the 20-year-old soldier said he is looking forward to reconnecting with his loved ones.

“It feels really good to be back,” Travis said. “I am definitely looking to cherish the moments I can have with my family.”

Contact Andrew Martins at amartins@gmnews.com.