Diana Hendricks had seen videos of soldiers surprising their families with an unexpected return. She figured her daughters deserve the same loving gesture.
So when she learned that her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Donnie Hendricks, would end his yearlong deployment from Fort Benning to South Korea by arriving home Wednesday -- the day before Lizzie's ninth birthday -- she had the makings of a magical moment.
It just so happened to coincide with Lakewood Elementary School's awards day honoring top performers during the marking period.
And principal Curtis Barber smoothly performed his role. He pretended to mistakenly skip Lizzie's name on the list of third-graders.
"I need to go back," Barber told the assembly. "I have missed a name. I need to go back and cover that. I want to make sure we recognize all of our students. I don't want to leave anyone out."
Then he announced the star of the show: "Making the All A Honor Roll, we have Lizzie Hendricks."
Just like the other honorees, Lizzie emerged from behind the curtain and received a pin from her teacher, Misty Grimes. Donnie, wearing his dress uniform and carrying flowers with a Happy Birthday balloon, came up behind Lizzie on stage. She turned around, then stutter-stepped when she saw her daddy. He scooped her up as she silently buried her head in his shoulder.
The crowd burst into an ovation.
"Sgt. Hendricks and his family, we're glad they're here," Barber declared when the applause subsided. "We appreciate what he's done, what all of our service people have done to serve our country."
Lizzie was at a loss for words after the ceremony, but she managed to mention that playing Monopoly with her daddy is what she missed most. He called her his "fishing buddy."
Earlier in the day, Donnie surprised 5-year-old Emily at the adjacent Lakewood Primary School when he was the guest reader in Beth Hedges' kindergarten class.
As a sniper, Donnie is trained to react in split-seconds, without thinking, so waiting to surprise his daughters, who thought he would return next week, was "torture" and "harder than combat," he said.
The effort, however, paid off.
"To have everything fall into place, everyone support us through all the deployments I've had, I couldn't ask for more," said Donnie, 40, who also has deployed three times to Iraq in his 17-year Army career.
"This was absolutely perfect," said Diana, 34, a teacher at Clubview Elementary School. "I don't think it could have worked any better."
"Vindication" is the word Donnie used to describe the feeling.
"Sometimes you second-guess," he said. "Am I where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing, especially when the elements get hard. But then to come back and see the smile on their face, it's all worth it."