Fayetteville, N.C. — Navy Reservist Lt. Steven Harrell deployed to Iraq nearly a year ago. He missed his daughter Pyper's second birthday, a beach vacation, potty training, Halloween and the Fourth of July.
But he and Pyper won't miss Christmas together.
Harrell wasn't scheduled to return to his family in Pembroke until February, but he found out last weekend that he would be back home on Dec. 23.
Harrell and his wife, Sunsarae, said they decided not to tell their family or their daughter. To keep up the charade, they talked by Skype even while he was demobilizing at the Norfolk Naval Base.
Then, on Friday, came the big surprise.
Sunsarae Harrell got Pyper and their relatives together for what they thought would be a holiday shopping trip, he said. Instead, they went to the Fayetteville airport.
After some waiting, Harrell emerged from the crowd of travelers and headed down an escalator to his ecstatic family.
Pyper ran straight to his arms for a big hug and kiss. She didn't let go while he hugged other relatives and talked on camera.
"I don't care what rank you are, your size or how old you are," Harrell said. "When you come down and see your little kids standing at the bottom of an escalator, just waiting for you – it crumbles somebody. It really does."