When high school senior Kayla Tillman took her seat during her graduation ceremony, she was fully aware that her father would not be in the audience.
The approaching day had been somewhat bittersweet for Kayla, ever since her dad, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Tillman, broke the news that he would not be able to travel from Korea to attend her ceremony.
The last time Kayla had seen her dad in person was when she had been preparing to enter eighth grade. They kept in contact through FaceTime, but her father had not been physically present for any of her high school years.
Kayla, a student at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had grown used to putting on a brave front and telling her dad that she understood whenever he had to miss something important in her life.
“When he first called me and told me, I was pretty calm about it because I didn’t want to make him upset that I was upset,” Kayla told “Good Morning America.” “But inside I was distraught.”
But as the graduation day approached, Tillman was doing everything in his power to be physically present at his daughter’s high school graduation.
With just an hour to spare, Tillman arrived at the ceremony and asked St. Thomas Aquinas administration if there was any way they could pull off a last-minute surprise during the graduation.
School administration quickly decided that it would be best for Tillman to surprise Kayla on stage, during the awards portion of the ceremony.
Kayla walked onto the stage to accept her award, then was prepared to walk back to her seat before she was stopped. School officials had an important announcement to make:
“Kayla, we thank you and your family for the sacrifices you have made to defend our freedom,” the school official said onstage.
“All the way from Korea, please welcome U.S. Staff Sgt. Anthony Tillman.”
Kayla was flooded with an overwhelm of emotions as she began to cry, embracing her dad for the first time in over four years.
“I was like, ‘No, that’s not my dad.’ I was shocked,” she later told “Good Morning America.”
“I didn’t know what to do. My mind just went blank. I just went and hugged him and was full of joy.”
Tillman said that experiencing this milestone event weighed heavily on his heart, as he realized just how much of his daughter’s life had passed by while he was on various deployments in Iraq and Korea.
“When they started playing the graduation music, tears just started coming down my eyes because right then and there I realized how much of her life I’d missed,” he said.
“I didn’t realize the stuff my kids were going through by me not being there physically.”
“It was rough on her and I’m proud that she finished school while dealing with the fact that her dad was in the Army and not there like her friends’ dads were,” Tillman said.
“For the situation we were in, I’m so proud of her.”
Kayla and her sister, 15, were used to their father being gone a lot. Kayla told CNN that the pair only got to spent a few hours together before he had to leave again.
“He left the same night. I saw him for a couple of hours. We had dinner,” she said. “Every time I see him, our time is very limited.”
According to GMA, Tillman is expecting to take an extended leave from work in order to spend some much-needed time with his daughters.
“I want to spend all my time with my girls,” he said.
Kayla is planning to start college in Louisiana in the fall, majoring in biological sciences with the goal of one day becoming a doctor.
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