The family dog wags his tail so hard his whole body shakes; the kids turn off the Xbox and jump with joy. Then the spouse comes in for that tearful, happy hug: a soldier returning home from service is a triumphant, picturesque affair — one that’s nearly magic. Or, at least it should be.

When one National Guardsmen returned to his home after a dangerous stint of hurricane relief, he probably anticipated that lovely magical moment: the happy dog, the elated son, and the tearful girlfriend. Instead, however, he noticed some things about his house were not quite right…

Army medic Luis Ocampo lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his girlfriend Kailey Finch and their son Lucian. Luis served in the North Carolina National Guard, and in September 2018, duty called him into action.

Kailey Finch / Facebook

Hurricane Florence, a Category 1 storm, smacked the coast with heavy winds and torrential rain, flooding cities and destroying homes. The Guard deployed Luis to the riverfront city of New Bern, which the storm hit particularly hard.

Anella Jane / MNN

While Luis and his local soldiers navigated the storm’s aftermath, helping anyone who needed water, food, or what have you, 20-year-old Kailey and Lucian headed for a place they would feel safer without Luis around.

The National Guard

Specifically, she took her soon to Luis’s parents’ house so she wouldn’t be alone for days. She left the family dog at home, where she checked in on him periodically. For a few days, the family lived like this — away from home and apart.

Kailey Finch / Facebook

On September 21, Luis returned home from his brief stint in New Bern. After helping people piece their lives back together, he expected at least a few hours for himself. But once at home, he did not receive a hero’s welcome.

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

With Kailey still at his parents’ house, Luis arrived at home only to be greeted by a curious sight: the dog — who’d been home all by himself — was running around in the front yard.

Flickr

Even more curious was that the back door had been left wide open. Either the dog taught himself a new trick and opened the door himself, or someone who should not have opened that back door. Gulp.

Most telling of all, however, was that the window in his son’s bedroom was propped open: someone busted the lock with a nearby shovel and crawled into the home! They weren’t still inside, were they?

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

Luis entered his house through the wide-open back door and looked around. There was, thankfully, no one still inside the home. But that was just about the only positive the soldier could take away from what he saw.

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

The intruder flung clothes everywhere. They stole a laptop Luis kept all of his school work on; they stole a video game system, a firearm, and even swiped food from the refrigerator! And they didn’t stop there.

Kailey Finch / Facebook

The thieves took a box of coins Luis’s grandmother collected from around the world — something immensely sentimental to the 24-year-old. After surveying the damage, all he could do was stick his face in his hands.

Kailey Finch / Facebook

This was how Kailey found her soldier when she returned home. Wanting to do something to help, she turned to Facebook and wrote a status that she didn’t know would eventually change their lives.

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

“This soldier, my soldier,” Kailey wrote, “lost everything of importance…We are trying to get the word out and see if anyone has any information about who may have taken it. Please share and see what we can find out!”

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

A friend of Kailey’s, Mary Elise Capron, saw the post and felt an overwhelming sense of grief for the couple she loved dearly. She’d worked closely with Luis over the years and knew him as “an amazing soldier and person.”

Mary Elise Capron / Facebook

Mary wanted to help, so she set up a GoFundMe. “I am honored to know [Luis],” she wrote, “and cannot believe something so terrible could happen to someone so dedicated to the service, his family, and school.”

Luis Ocampo / Facebook

Mary set a fundraising goal of $5,000. That, she figured, would be plenty to replace the laptop and firearm, and to repair the broken bedroom window. Eventually, donations flooded in…and they wouldn’t stop!

In 11 days, the GoFundMe raised thousands for the couple, who eventually asked Mary to shut down the fundraiser! They were making too much money, they argued, and didn’t “want to abuse people’s generosity.”

But the public actually asked Mary to re-open the fundraiser after she shut it down at the couple’s behest: they wanted to help out this woebegone soldier! This made Luis uncomfortable, so he and Mary worked out another plan.

Mary Elise Capron; Kailey Finch

Delighted with the public’s enthusiasm to help a soldier in need, Luis, Kailey, and Mary redirected new donations to Soldiers and Airmen Assistance Fund, which helps local Guardsmen facing hardships.

North Carolina National Guard / Flickr

The couple even gave some of the donation money — which totaled nearly $15,000! — to a soldier who’d been living in a hotel after a Hurricane Florence brought a tree down on his home. Luis and Kailey turned a disaster into a positive moment.

“A big part of wanting to give the donations comes from seeing how generous people have been,” Luis said. “And I wanted to pay that back to someone else who needed help.”

Kailey Finch / Facebook

Over a million people were forced to evacuate in preparation for Florence, but of those displaced by the storm, Ashleigh Gilleland and her fiancé David Greer — along with Luis — found their journey away from home to be especially difficult.

Ashleigh Gilleland / Facebook

Residents of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Ashleigh and David were on the fence about abandoning their apartment in favor of staying with family in Sarasota, Florida. But with Ashleigh soon expecting the couple’s first child, they were unwilling to risk the safety of their budding family.

Mattias / Flickr

The storm was fast approaching their coastal hometown, leaving them little time to prepare for evacution. Taking only the essentials and a few pairs of clean clothes, the couple hastily sealed up their apartment and hit the road.

Myrtle Beach Online

The traffic was bumper-to-bumper as Ashleigh and David made the grueling 10-hour, 600-mile trip from Myrtle Beach to Sarasota. As soon as they arrived, Florence made landfall just two hours north of their apartment.

WBUR

Questions swirled in the couple’s head as every news channel ran around-the-clock coverage of the storm’s destructive path. What would become of their apartment? Where would they go from here? As Florence only seemed to grow in intensity, things looked bleak for Ashleigh and David.

Patch

In an attempt to take their minds off the storm, Ashleigh and David turned off the TV and grabbed a bite to eat. The couple decided on Sarasota’s own Wings N Weenies: after all, who could be sad while eating chicken wings?

With their stomachs full and hearts a little lighter, the pair exited the restaurant and headed back to their car. But their relief was short-lived, as a large note stuck to the car’s windshield made their stomachs sink once again.

Spirit 105.3

Naturally, Ashleigh assumed the note was about her park job. Sure, she wasn’t the greatest at parking, but there were definitely much worse parkers out there. But as Ashleigh read the note, her eyes immediately filled with tears.

“[I] saw your license plate is from South Carolina,” the note read. “[I’m] not sure if you evacuated from the storm, but just know Florida is praying for you and your state. When we had [Hurricane] Irma, we evacuated to Alabama and received a similar letter on our car, because [of] our Florida license plate.”

Ashleigh Gilleland / Facebook

“So I wanted to pass it on… we understand how it feels to evacuate,” the note concluded. As they finished reading, the couple realized that the kind stranger had also left cash and a Walmart gift card!

Ashleigh Gilleland / Facebook

Never had the couple experienced such kindness from a stranger before, and they knew they couldn’t let this good deed go unnoticed. Rushing home, Ashleigh took to Facebook to share the amazing discovery with her friends.

Ashleigh Gilleland / Facebook

“This just made my day,” Ashleigh wrote. “I’m so happy to know there are still great people in the world.” But as news of Ashleigh’s good fortune spread throughout her friend group, she never expected how far the post would reach.

Ashleigh Gilleland / Facebook

After only a few days, Ashleigh’s post went viral, accumulating 9,000 likes and over 10,000 shares. The thrill of Ashleigh’s sudden fame helped relieve some of her worry over the state of affairs back home, but it was an unexpected message from a fellow Facebook user that really took the experience to a whole new level.

Huffington Post

Chelsey Tokan, an elementary school teacher from Fort Worth, Florida, reached out to Ashleigh to let her know that she was the one that wrote the note. Contacting her directly, Chelsey wanted to reiterate why she had acted so kindly in the first place.

Chelsey Tokan / Facebook

“The thing that got me through [Hurricane Irma] was the kindness of everyone in and out of my state,” Chelsey explained in her messages with Ashleigh. “Just knowing people really do care makes some things so devastating feel so small! A simple act of kindness can really turn someone’s day around.”

CNN

Chelsey’s words sparked a conversation between the two women, and Ashleigh took the opportunity to thank her personally for the note and gift. “I wish I could’ve met you, and I wish I could have returned the favor,” the 21-year-old wrote. “Just know, I will be paying it forward and will be keeping this chain going!”

Ashleigh Gillelan / Chelsey Tokan / Facebook

Ashleigh soon shared their conversation online. This time, however, Ashleigh began attracting attention from news media outlets, with even Fox News reaching out about her story.

“I was overwhelmed and automatically [started] thinking about how I could pay it forward for someone else,” Ashleigh told Fox News. “The smallest gestures can make the biggest impacts on people’s lives.”

Ashleigh Gillelan / Facebook