A difficult six months for Hailey Duncan got a little lighter Friday morning.
“My grandmother told me that it is easier to let the days go by instead of counting them, but of course, I didn’t listen,” the eighth-grader told an assembly of her fellow students at Blythewood Middle School.
Her dad, Army Col. Rodney Duncan, had been deployed in Afghanistan, and not for the first time in her young life.
She did count the days. About 180 this time.
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She can stop counting now.
Hailey threw her head back, closed her eyes and dropped her speech papers as Col. Duncan walked to her on stage Friday morning, embraced her and kissed his daughter on her forehead.
It was a surprise reunion for both Duncans, as the school, which is home to dozens of military families, celebrated Veterans Day.
After six months deployed in Afghanistan, Rodney Duncan recently returned to Norfolk, Va., where he is stationed. He knew he’d be reunited with his daughter in Blythewood on Friday, but he didn’t know it would be in front of her entire school at a Veterans Day assembly. Hailey’s mother, LaTanza Duncan, had arranged the surprise.
“I’m doing what I love, and being deployed is part of that; but it’s the family members that actually have the hard part,” Rodney Duncan said. “They’re the ones ... that are worrying about us that are deployed.”
It was Duncan’s dream to serve in the military ever since he was a teenager.
He arrived at Fort Bragg, N.C., after graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1989 and was told, “Don’t unpack your bags; you’re going to Desert Storm,” Duncan remembers.
Since his first deployment in 1990, Duncan has been sent overseas at least 10 times. He was deployed about the time his daughter was to be born and was granted emergency leave just in time to welcome her to the world.
Duncan’s deployments have become more difficult as Hailey has grown, he said.
“As she’s getting older and understands deployments ... When I told her I was going on this last deployment to Afghanistan, she said, ‘You’re going to war. You may not come back,’” Duncan remembers. “So it’s real. It’s real now. So it makes it even harder because I know she’s back here worrying.”
During Rodney’s most recent deployment, LaTanza Duncan said she was startled to walk in her daughter’s room and find a note where she was counting the days her father was gone.
“I paused. This was really affecting her more than usual,” LaTanza Duncan said.
To help cope with her father being away, Hailey developed a project to earn her Girl Scouts Silver Award and help other military kids in her community cope with separations, too.
In Richland 2 middle schools that have a high number of military families, Hailey will hang world maps showing where students’ loved ones are stationed. She’ll also be working with mental health professionals to discuss resources for military children.
“Just because we don’t see the wars on television anymore doesn’t mean we are not still at war,” Hailey said. “I am a child that has to worry about a parent, and I am not alone.”
The reunited father and daughter will get to spend a couple of days together, hanging out, catching up, maybe see a movie, they said.
On Sunday, Veterans Day, Col. Duncan flies to Turkey.