There are certain moments in life that you never forget.
For Hali Palmer, one of those moments occurred on a humid Tuesday afternoon in Myrtle Beach in front of a crowd of baseball fans at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark.
As the sun set over the Carolinas, Socastee High School sophomore cheerleader Palmer casually walked out to the pitcher’s mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
After a successful throw, she walked down the line to shake the hand of the man on the receiving end of her pitch and instantly began crying as she realized she was looking into the eyes of Army Staff Sgt. Richard Palmer, her father who had been deployed to Kosovo for the last year.
“I was told he was going to come home in about three weeks, around June 20th,” Palmer said. “I had no idea.”
As she stood with tears streaming down her face, she recalled the previous moments with a look of pure joy.
“I heard him talking to the guy next to him before he took the mask off and obviously I know his voice, so I instantly started crying,” Palmer said. “I was like, ‘This isn’t real,’ and then he took the mask off, and I was just shocked. I mean obviously I didn’t think I was coming to the Pelicans game to meet my dad who I haven’t seen in over a year. I thought I was coming to represent Socastee cheerleading, so it was just overwhelming and very emotional.”
Mike Gilbert, a fellow firefighter at Myrtle Beach Fire Department, set up the event merely days before it took place.
Her father, however, wasn’t prepared for such an extravagant welcome.
“It’s kind of embarrassing; I was wanting something a little more low key. But it’s not about me, it’s about my family,” Palmer said. “They’re the ones that make more sacrifices than I do.”
It was particularly hard for Hali, whom friends and family said is extremely close to her father. Away for his second deployment, Richard missed his daughter’s 16th birthday, the day she got her driver’s license and the start of her cheerleading career.
That was the toughest part, Hali said, and her friends took notice.
“It was heartfelt. It was very emotional, and I know it had a big impact on Hali,” Hali’s friend and Braves softball pitcher, Mallorie Roesing, said of Tuesday’s surprise. “She’s been constantly asking ‘When is my dad coming back, when is my dad coming back?’ and now that it finally happened, she’s just immediately much happier.”
It was particularly hard for Hali to say goodbye the second time, her friend, Sybil Fischer, said.
“I was there the day that Hali dropped her dad off. That was really emotional; obviously I’m not even Richard’s daughter, but I’ve always looked up to Richard as a dad and for me that was so emotional,” she said. “I mean Hali and [her mom] Aimee were both in tears, and it didn’t really hit us until we were driving back and we knew that was going to be the last time we saw him for a long time.”
Said Hali: “The last time I saw him we were at his military base and he was leaving the next day so he had to say goodbye and it was really hard. It’s not easy; I cried a lot, and the longer he was gone, the harder it was, so this year hasn’t been easy.”
According to Myrtle Beach Pelicans Director of Promotions, setting up the special moment wasn’t too difficult, even considering the short notice.
“One of the main things that we had to do was connect with our clubhouse and let all those guys in there know because I know that they’re going to give him a special welcome home as well when he goes into the clubhouse,” she said. “Other than that, [the focus was] pretty much just getting a uniform and catcher’s gear – which wasn’t hard to do because we have those lying around in the back.”
It was a welcome that has been long overdue for Richard, as well. As he took a big drink from his first beer in over a year, he smiled.
“It feels awesome [being home],” Richard said. “It’s cool to be able to walk down the street, get in your own car, go to the gas station whenever you want and not have to worry about clearing it with anybody or anything like that just get in and go. Lucky.”
As the Pelicans’ game against the Potomac Nationals began and the reunited Palmers made their way back to their seats to adjust to much-needed family time, Hali offered one final thought.
“I’m so happy. Obviously I didn’t know this was going to happen, and I’m just overwhelmed,” she said. “Having him the home is the best thing that could ever happen to me.”