Navy nurse Deborah Davadi’s hands shook as she waited inside a small office at Campus Park Elementary School on Thursday.
A sea of first-, second- and third-graders flooded into the cafeteria next door. One of those students was Davadi’s 7-year-old daughter, Veronica.
Nine long months had passed since Davadi held her daughter, and the moment was drawing closer and closer with each breath. The 38-year-old spent the past six months in Afghanistan, but her latest mission – to surprise her daughter in front of hundreds of classmates – was making her sweat.
“I’m feeling really nervous. I can’t wait to see her,” Davadi said moments before she would be reunited with her daughter. “It’s been a long time, so I’m excited. This is the longest I’ve ever been away from the kids.”
A few minutes later, when first-grade teacher Lupe Pimentel-Avalos asked the kids to name off some heroes, they immediately said “soldiers.” She then invited Veronica to the stage to speak about her military mom, before giving her the big surprise.
The little girl told the crowd she didn’t know when her mother would return home.
“Are you ready to see your mommy?” Pimentel-Avalos asked Veronica. “Well, I think today wishes come true a lot faster than we thought. There’s somebody here that I think you would like to see.”
Seconds later, Deborah emerged and clasped her daughter in a tight hug.
As music drowned out their voices, Veronica was still shaking and fighting back tears several minutes later.
“It was like a dream,” the second-grader said, gripping her mother’s military uniform. “It was the best day of my life. She’s in the Navy and helps other people, but she’s always my hero.”
Deborah served more than 13 years in the Navy, most recently in Afghanistan as a hospital corpsman, which is an enlisted medical specialist. For more than six months, Deborah braved triple-digit temperatures to provide medical care to soldiers.
Although she used Skype to communicate with her family, the mother of four never spent more than a few months away from home until her recent tour in Afghanistan.
“It was hard in the beginning; I cried a lot,” Davadi said. “It was hard leaving them. We just had an estimated date, but we didn’t really know when I’d come home.”
The idea to surprise Veronica in front of her classmates came to Pimentel-Avalos after she heard Davadi would be returning home. “We just wanted to make it memorable for the both of them,” she said.
After Thursday, the family planned to head to Sacramento to surprise Davadi’s 19-year-old daughter in college. The other two children – Gabriel Davadi, 15, and Isaiah Davadi, 11 – received their surprises earlier in the week.
“They called me to the office and I found out it was her,” Isaiah said. “It was surprising because I didn’t expect her to be here so early.”