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Son defies odds to walk into returning soldier's arms

U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Jeremy Cooney had been told that his son, Michael, who has cerebral palsy, would never walk, but when he returned home after being in Afghanistan, Michael had a big surprise for him.

When Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Cooney, 31, returned home from Afghanistan to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina last December, he was taken aside and escorted into a gymnasium where his wife and five children waited.

There across the basketball court was his 6-year-old son, Michael, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Doctors told Jeremy and his wife, Melissa, 30, that Michael would never walk.

While Jeremy was deployed, though, Michael discovered how to stand up unassisted. His teachers, Melissa says, then began trying to teach him how to walk with a cane. Michael did them one better: he took several steps on his own.


Having seen the many military homecoming videos of returning parents surprising their children, Melissa decided that instead Michael would surprise Jeremy. She asked family members and friends not to post photos of Michael walking on Facebook or share the news of his progress with Jeremy.

Courtesy Melissa Cooney

Michael Cooney, who suffers from cerebral palsy and was not expected to walk, greets his father, Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Cooney.

When Jeremy entered the gym, he did not know his son could walk. Michael took dozens of halting steps toward his shocked dad, who crouched down on the ground and motioned for Michael to keep coming. As soon as Michael got close, Jeremy picked him up and embraced him.

The touching moment was posted Wednesday on Welcome Home Blog, a site dedicated to military homecomings. The video has since been viewed more than 767,000 times on YouTube.

"I can’t describe it," Jeremy said of the reunion. "It was years in the making just trying to get him limited mobility with surgery and a walker. It's probably one of the happiest moments of my life."

The reunion was orchestrated with the help of a family readiness officer who contacted Jeremy's supervisors in Afghanistan. Melissa and her five children arrived at Camp Lejeune at 10 p.m. and the buses came at 5 a.m. "Michael is a full-blown daddy's boy," Melissa said. "He stayed up the whole time."

In the months since Jeremy's return, Michael has been more active than ever. He has stopped using his walker at school. The family was able to take him into a cavern on a family vacation to Tennessee. Before, Jeremy says, he would have had to carry Michael. And this Easter, he was able to hunt for Easter eggs in the family's backyard. In years past, Michael had to crawl on the ground. "This [Easter], he got to go all over the place," said Jeremy.

Melissa says Michael's insistence on independence is characteristic of his personality. "I think that’s just who he is. He wants to be the same as everybody else. That’s the personality he has and I don’t think anybody can stop him."

Jeremy didn't expect the video to be viewed so widely, but says the focus should not be on his homecoming.

"The biggest story is [Michael] and his desire  -- once he sets his mind on something he doesn’t settle for less," Jeremy said. "Parents are supposed to inspire their kids. In our kids, it’s the opposite. Michael inspires us on a daily basis. He’s a one-of-a-kind child."

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at msnbc.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

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