TAMPA, Fla. - Second-grader Coral Pena got the surprise of a lifetime on Friday when her father, an active-duty Army service member, unexpectedly appeared at her school after more than a year away from home.
The students at Claywell Elementary School had gathered for a Veterans Day assembly when Pvt. Rafael Sanchez surprised his daughter, culminating in a moment neither of them are likely to ever forget.
Coral sat with her classmates, unaware of her dad's homecoming. The assembly was set to begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, but before students and teachers laid hands over hearts, a school leader asked for a helper to come recite the pledge.
That's when Sanchez appeared, exiting from a nearby building and walking up to the ceremony as Coral ran to embrace her dad.
“That was surprising,” Coral later said, still smiling.
During the remainder of the assembly, students gave presentations about each branch of the military, performing patriotic songs and displaying banners that honored veterans who are related to students and staff at Claywell.
Coral and her newly reunited family sat with other veterans in attendance, overjoyed to all be together again.
“It’s definitely difficult,” Sanchez said of his deployment to Virginia. “It’s very trying, but it also teaches you to appreciate every moment that you do have with them.”
Sanchez, who had just arrived in town at 3 a.m., credited the school and his family with excellent planning.
“I really wish more communities would support their veterans like this. Just to have that support -- besides your family and friends -- is a wonderful thing,” he added. “It makes you feel like you’re actually a big part of something and you are appreciated.”