KEENE – She hadn't expected him home until April, but last night, Elizabeth Penn cried tears of joy as she embraced her father, David Penn, a New Hampshire Army National Guard soldier home from Iraq on a two-week leave.
A freshman at Keene State College, Elizabeth had just walked into a semi-formal dance at Holloway Hall when the song "Hero" by Mariah Carey started to play.
Her friends, who had all kept the secret for weeks, turned and looked toward the door. That's when Elizabeth saw her father, dressed in fatigues, carrying a bouquet of flowers and a stuffed animal. The two embraced, and the tears started to flow as Elizabeth's friends and family encircled them, capturing the moment forever on cameras and video.
"I'm just shocked," said Elizabeth, wearing a black gown with rhinestones. "I don't know what to say. I'm shaking."
Dave Penn of New Hampshire Army National Guard's 34th RAOC Unit surprises his daughter, Elizabeth Penn, 18, at a Keene State College dance last night. (KRISTEN SENZ)
A Manchester resident, David Penn is a member of the Army National Guard's 34th Rear Area Operations Center Unit, a security force of 30 soldiers currently stationed in Mosul in northern Iraq.
"I miss my family a lot," said David, who was deployed last July and hasn't seen his wife, daughter or twin sons since. "I miss my kids."
"She'll always be my little baby," he said of his daughter.
Donna Penn, David's wife of more than 20 years, orchestrated the Valentine's Day surprise for Elizabeth. She said the two have always had an extremely close relationship.
"They're like peas and carrots from the Forrest Gump movie," she said.
The surprise reunion was Donna's Valentine's Day gift to her family.
"It was exciting," she said. "It was heartwarming. I was nervous, because I know how close they are. It was heartwarming, and that's Valentine's Day. We're very lucky to have this day with him."
When she was able to catch her breath, Elizabeth said seeing her father "was like a burst of energy, because I haven't seen him for so long."
The Penn family planned to spend the weekend together at a bed and breakfast in Troy.
"We just want to regroup, get to know each other again and just be a family again," Donna said.