It has been five years since Private First Class Gustavo Rios-Ordonezstepped on an explosive device while serving in Afghanistan, leaving behind is wife and two daughters.
On every year since, his daughtersIsabella, now 7 andElizabeth, 5, and his widow, Tiffani Rios, celebrate his life. But this year, something incredible happened.
“On his birthday we go up the cemetery and they write on the balloons and just release them so they can send messages to Daddy in heaven,”Riostold The TODAY Show.
This year, the girls brought their balloons, as usual. Isabella wrote her message, but Elizabeth told her mom she wanted to include an additional message: “I love and miss you daddy” with her name, hometown and the date.
Two weeks later, someone found the balloon.
Heidi Kern Schwartz found the little yellow balloon as she was walking to pick her son up from school, more than 800 miles away in Newtown, Massachusetts, on June 7.
Schwartz said at first she thought the balloon was a Memorial Day memento, but soon realized the date didn’t match the holiday.
After looking up information about Eaton, Ohio, she posted a picture to the town’s local Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“Does anyone know who Elizabeth is? I’d love for her to find out how far her balloon went,” Schwartz wrote on the post.
The picture quickly went viral, circulating among Rios’ Facebook friends, and getting shared more than 69,000 times.
“Since everyone here in this little tiny town knows who my kids are, they all started tagging me in it and asking if it was Elizabeth’s balloon,” Rios told TODAY. “When I saw it, I said, ‘Yup, that’s hers.'”
Rios said her daughters are too young to understand, but she was thrilled.
“At first I was shocked, but then I got excited. I thought it was really cool,” she said.
“It’s the first time one’s ever been found. I figured it would land on some field somewhere, or in the garbage or something,” she added. “I didn’t think someone would actually find it and try to find the owner or the person who released it.”
Rios and Schwartz soon got in contact with each other, and Schwartz mailed the balloon back to Eaton.
“I had a feeling (Elizabeth’s) dad was a soldier, who had passed away,” Schwartz said to TODAY. “I thought this was sweet. She was trying to remember and connect with him in a way that only a little girl can.”