Emma Pitts only wanted one thing for her thirteenth birthday — for her father to return home from deployment in Korea.

Emma sat amongst the capacity crowd in the Fine Arts Center at Coleman Junior High surrounded by students and veterans to honor those who have served in the military Friday morning. Just after the presentation of the colors and pledges to the flags, students with military family members were asked to stand during the first-ever Veterans Day program at the first-year school.

Veterans were then directed to stand, as well as various other groups to recognize. After the room filled with applause, another request was made.

It was asked for anyone in the crowd with a seventh-grade daughter who has a birthday on Veterans Day and that was currently deployed in Korea to stand.

The father of Emma, Shaun Pitts, a first sergeant in the U.S. Army, then walked out on stage with open arms.

“I was able to spot her right away, and she was looking down, so she didn’t see me walk out, so I knew it was a good surprise,” Shaun said.

Her mother, Nicole Pitts, nudged Emma and she was out of her seat and in her father’s arms in no time. With her head buried in his uniform, she thought, “I can’t believe this. When I saw him on stage, I thought I was dreaming this […], but when I hugged him, I knew it was real.”

The two were then joined by Nicole and Emma’s stepmom, Emily Pitts, outside the FAC to catch up and hug some more. Shaun remembered precisely the last time he saw his youngest daughter. “It was 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 8, 2018."

“I asked her what she wanted for her birthday — she’s a veterans baby, born on Veterans Day,” Shaun explained. “And she said, ‘I just want you to come home and see me.’”

Emma had not expected to be reunited with her father until Christmas, as the entire family kept the secret surprise for the last two months.

Emma was raised on or near a military base until her mother retired in 2015.

Shaun entered the Army on June 1, 1999, and was stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana that October, which is also where he met Nicole. Shaun was first deployed to Iraq in April of 2003 for 15 months along with Nicole. After they returned to the states, they married by 2004. Emma was born on Veterans Day in 2005 and Shaun was later stationed in Fort Hood.

Emma was only 30 days old when Shaun took his second deployment to Iraq for a year. Before he left, Shaun visited his family in Fort Polk and took Emma on a walk in her stroller and just talked.

As he recalled those early years, Shaun then reached into his pocket on his right pant leg and pulled out a raggedy, tiny pink sock with a small rock inside. He explained that Emma had pulled off her sock and gave it to her father after their long walk around Fort Polk and before he deployed for his second time. His three nephews also painted the rock — which he keeps inside the sock and on his person at all time — white and wrote encouraging messages on it to keep him safe. He even recalled a day when he was in Afghanistan and made the convoy turn around because he’d forgotten the sock at the base.

To make it easier to leave for the first deployment as a father, he told himself that he would return to take care of his family. He admitted saying goodbye never got easier. Nicole added that this deployment was incredibly difficult because she and Shaun had a best friend die overseas.

In 2007, the family moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky and Shaun deployed back to Iraq in 2009 for a year. Shaun deployed again to Afghanistan in 2011 for nine months.

In 2013, Shaun deployed to Korea for a year and moved to Fort Stewart in 2017, while his wife and three children live in Fort Knox. He returned to Korea in January of this year and is in Waxahachie for the weekend before he returns to work at Fort Knox.

“I’ve watched her grow up the past 13 years and sometimes in snapshots,” Shaun said.

In the past, it was easier for Emma to say goodbye to her father before each deployment because she knew he would come right back to her. Now that he lives in another state, Emma has to wait to reunite with him, which makes it harder on her when he leaves. Emma and Nicole left Kentucky in 2015 to move to Waxahachie, which made a three-minute drive to dad turn into a two-hour plane ride.

The family makes sure to pin down calendar days to get together for vacations and visits on a regular basis. Thanks to modern technology, Shaun and Emma communicate daily whether it be a text, video call or playing pool or cup pong over the phone.

“Shaun has done an amazing job at keeping in touch with Emma,” Nicole said. “When he can’t call or email, he writes her letters. He’s been doing it since she was in the womb.”

When asked what life is like for a 13-year-old growing up in a military family, Emma said, “It is really hard to see your family and have to let go.” Shaun then took his daughter's hand to comfort her as she searched for the right words.

Shaun explained that the military lifestyle matured Emma and taught her to be resilient.

As Shaun inches near his 20-year mark in the Army —June 1, 2019— he will decide if he will retire to spend more time with his family.

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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450