(KYTX) - U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen Stroman has braved the brutal desert temperatures of Iraq and Afghanistan. He is comfortable in his Army fatigues. His military training and expertise was no match for the stifling heat and itchy interior of a high school mascot costume.
"It's pretty hot in this thing," Sgt. Stroman said, "and I can see out of my peripheral but I can't see straight ahead."
The temporary discomfort and obscured vision were quickly put at ease when the tiny arms of his daughter Emmaleigh wrapped around him for the first time in more than a year. Sgt. Stroman surprised Emmaleigh, a first-grade student at Lindale's Velma Penny Elementary School, with a visit to her physical education class on Wednesday. He dressed in the Lindale Eagle mascot costume to conceal himself and provide a special gift in time for Christmas. The father and daughter had been separated for a year due to his assignment in New York.
Sgt. Stroman, along with Emmaleigh's mother, Marianne Miller, and stepmother, Lindsay Stroman, made arrangements with the staff of Velma Penny Elementary School for the visit and reveal. Miller asked the high school cheerleading sponsor to borrow the Eagle mascot costume.
"When I first called, I had to explain who I was and what we were trying to do for our daughter," Miller said. "As soon as I told them, they said ‘yes.' We thought this would be a good way to surprise her."
Sgt. Stroman was quickly ushered into the teacher's lounge to hide out of sight from his daughter. Her class would pass the campus office on the way to the gymnasium. The mascot costume was specially delivered to the lounge where Stroman put it on over his fatigues. He walked to the school's gym dressed in the costume where he high-fived incoming students, including his own daughter who had no idea he was inside the costume.
Students in Emmaleigh's class were told a special news story was being written about the Lindale Eagle to distract from the presence of several cameras waiting to capture the big moment. Velma Penny Elementary School Principal Monica Moore told students the Eagle needed to select a special volunteer that morning to help show school spirit. Stroman walked through the crowd of eager faces and reached out his hand to Emmaleigh. In front of her classmates, he knelt down and removed the costume head. For the first time in more than 12 months, their eyes met face to face. Emmaleigh collapsed against her father in a big hug. He scooped her up and swung her around. The gymnasium erupted in applause. Campus staff members passed out tissues to adults moved by the sight.
"I appreciate all the school did for us," Stroman said after the reunion. "I've been looking forward to seeing her and really wanted to do something to make this special. The school really set this up and did a great job."
When asked if she was happy to see him, the seven-year-old gave a very emphatic head nod.
Stroman is a member of the 10th Mountain Division. He served in Iraq from May 2007 through May 2008. He was deployed to Afghanistan from June 2010 until April 2011. He has been in active duty in New York for the past two years. He said time away from his family has been difficult.
The efforts of some caring educators and concerned family members, helped to turn a difficult year into a merry Christmas.
"By far, the best Christmas gift," Stroman said.