Clarksville, TN -- Madison Willis stood on the stage of West Creek High School at the Spring Choir Concert and began singing "New York State of Mind."
But seconds into the song, the 17-year-old sprinted off the stage.
She'd seen a man in uniform walking down the aisle carrying a bouquet of roses and realized it was her father, whom she hadn't seen in nine months.
Speechless, she ran toward her daddy, her best friend and with tears of joy embraced him and sobbed.
It was the moment, her father, Sgt. 1st Class Richard D. Willis, who has deployed several times in his 27-year military career, had planned and waited for, and he held his baby girl as everyone in the room cheered in applause, some crying along with her.
Gwen Willis, orchestrator of the surprise, mom and wife, she said it's a moment her daughter, "Would never forget."
Special surprise for a special girl
Several months ago, Madison was watching a TV program that showed military parents surprising their children.
"The last time Daddy called from Afghanistan she was telling him about it. She was excited and thought it was neat. He gathered from that it might be something she would enjoy," Gwen Willis said. "This is his last deployment. He has some injuries that prevent him from ever going again, and he wanted to do something special for her."
Sgt. Willis has been deployed many times in his career. He did mini-deployments to Grenada and Panama as well as with the Egyptian Army and Singapore Army. The longest were the 15-month stints in Iraq and later Afghanistan.
Although the latest one was the shortest, it was also the hardest.
"As he was leaving on the bus to go to Afghanistan, she was screaming at the goodbye ceremony, 'I don't know how to be without my best friend, and you're leaving.' It was horrible. We were all crying. It's been the hardest because she was a junior and he missed a lot of things."
"He and Madison are very, very, very close. She's been through a lot of deployments. She's been a military brat her whole life. This was probably the shortest and hardest deployment for both of us."
"I'm glad he made it home, that's the first thing, so he could do this," Gwen said, choking with emotion. "That's his princess - he's called her that since the first time she (was born). He would do anything for her."
Gwen Willis described her daughter as their only child and miracle baby. "We are so blessed with her. She is smart and witty and fun to be with."
But Madison's intelligence made keeping Sgt. Willis' return a secret - almost a mission impossible.
To make the surprise happen, Gwen had to keep big secret: Sgt. Willis had come home on Saturday and had to be in hiding for two days until the concert.
On Saturday, Gwen went by herself to the welcome home ceremony to pick up her husband. Madison expected his return later this week.
"It has been helter-skelter keeping him from her. I was able to get rid of her Saturday night. She spent the night over her friend Savannah's house, so I brought him home.
"Sunday, she was like, 'I don't think I want to spend the night. I think I want to come home.' I called the lodge back and told him he's coming Sunday. She then said she wanted to stay at her friends. I called the lodge back and canceled.
"Then, she showed up at home unexpected and I had to hide him in the master bathroom. He had to be quiet because it is right over the living room and you can hear movement. ... I'm always saying that she needs to work for the CIA because she doesn't miss a thing."
Gwen said they had originally planned to do the surprise at lunch, and she believed her daughter was suspecting it. When Gwen showed up to lunch alone on Monday, Madison looked disappointed.
"We'd been planning it and had planned it to happen during the lunch hour at school. We had to move it because she's so questioning."
Though the plan was carefully thought-out, a bowl of soup and a pool almost botched everything.
The mother and daughter had cooked a batch of Sgt. Willis' favorite soup and frozen it. When Gwen returned home unexpectedly Sunday, Madison opened the freezer and noticed the soup was unfrozen and liquified.
"She said, 'Why is Daddy's soup liquid? Why isn't it frozen anymore? Did you eat Daddy's soup?'," Gwen said.
"I said, 'Yes, I tasted it to make sure it still tastes good after being frozen since we've never frozen it before. It doesn't taste good, so we will have to make a new batch.' ... I had to hide the soup in a box in the garage because he ate some more. I had to tell her I dumped it."
Honey-do project creates close call
Then there was the pool. Sgt. Willis decided to work on it, and doing so left the water level lower than normal.
"She looks out the window at the pool and says, 'Why is the water level down in the pool? Did you do something with the pool?'," Gwen said. "Again off the top of my head, I said, 'Well it was full, and the filter wasn't sounding good, so I went out there and let some of the water out to see if that would help the filter work better."
The surprise was definitely worth it, and Madison said she had no idea.
After the concert, Gwen was full of the joy of having her father home.
"I'm so happy. I'm so happy he came home and I get to see him all the time," Madison said. "He's never deploying again, and it's a big relief."
Written By: Tavia D. Green, The Leaf Chronicle