FLORENCE, Ala.—

17-year-old Sydney Brook’s father, Colonel Buddy Brook, was the last person she was expecting to see at her school sorority dance. As far as she knew, he was still in the Middle East on deployment from the Redstone Arsenal U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command.

Colonel Brook has had to miss many family events while serving the nation. “We miss a lot of things, birthdays, anniversaries,” said Brook. “I’ve missed the last 12 anniversaries my wife and I’ve had, except one. On this deployment, I actually left … on our anniversary date. I’ve missed the birth of the two of three of our grandchildren, so that’s been hard.”

But on this return, Brook decided to give his daughter the surprise of her life. “My wife, Sharon, and I planned it out: After getting back home from the Middle East the night before, I’d stay in a hotel so Sydney wouldn’t see me,” said Brook.

“I’m just glad that we get to give Sydney a surprise,” he added. “I hope it goes off well. It’s hard staying in this hotel, waiting for the night to get here.”

Only a chosen few knew about the surprise. “We told the sorority officials beforehand, and the MC, and we arranged for a TV reporter to videotape the dance so we could get Sydney’s reaction on camera,” said Brook.

They did have to tell her dance partner. “We had to ask him to dance with her in a way to keep her back turned, so she wouldn’t see me before I was ready to surprise her,” said Brook.

Just before the dance began, Sydney watched a video from her dad. “Backstage at the dance, before the [sorority] sisters made their entrance, they played a video message on a big screen that supposedly my dad had sent from Afghanistan,” said Sydney. “I just teared up, because I missed him and he couldn’t be here.”

When a father-daughter dance was announced, Sydney had no idea her father was anywhere near. He walked over and tapped her on the shoulder. “I was in shock, then I gasped and started to cry,” said Sydney. The sorority sisters clapped and cheered.

“I don’t even really remember dancing with him, just hugging him while we moved on the dance floor,” said Sydney.

Her father added, “It was a pretty emotional moment for us and for our whole family.” Brook is now on a three-week break before another deployment.

“Sydney hadn’t seen me for nine months, and even though we talked on the phone a lot and did homework assignments together over the computer, being with her in person was … very special,” said Brook.

Besides writing, R. McKinley loves reading (especially historical fiction and science books), playing piano and flute, being involved in politics and community, working out, enjoying nature, and hanging out with four wonderful cats.