7-year-old's gift for birthday: Dad home from Iraq

DACULA - Being stationed in Iraq for six months didn't keep Army Staff Sgt. Alfred Watson from surprising his 7-year-old daughter, Ashlee Cook on her birthday.

Shortly after arriving in Atlanta on Nov. 10, Watson visited Oakcliff Elementary School to surprise his daughter.

"We had the principal get her out of the classroom and ask her where her father was," Watson said. "When Ashlee said 'Iraq,' I stepped out into the hallway. You should have seen her eyes."

The children from her class then ate cupcakes that Belinda Cook, Ashlee's mom, had brought. Watson later lunched with Ashlee in the cafeteria and acquired the new name G.I. Joe by the kids, since he donned his full military fatigues that day, he said.

Cook kept Watson's arrival a secret for weeks after she received an e-mail from him requesting her to do so because he wanted to surprise his daughter, she said.

In anticipation of his arrival, Ashlee and her mother made "welcome home" signs and decorated for an early Christmas so he could have a tree.

"She asked me why I was putting the tree up before Halloween. I had to tell her it's for in case Daddy comes home earlier," Cook said. "I put the Christmas tree up because I knew he wouldn't have (one) over there."

At 7:30 p.m., the family went to a pep rally at Dacula Park where Ashlee performed with her cheerleader squad. It was Watson who then received the surprise.

Heather Blanton, a Dacula resident and one of the cheerleader's mothers, orchestrated a thank-you celebration in Watson's honor. A card was presented to him on behalf of the North Dacula Falcons football team, cheerleaders and members of the Dacula Athletic Association.

"We love our football," Blanton said. "But win or lose we go home every night and sleep on our beds, and we don't have to fear for our safety because of the men and women serving in our country."

Watson was surrounded by the football players, the cheerleaders and their parents. He began to tear up, she said.

"Everyone was shaking his hand and thanking him for his hard work and being a part of the country that we love," she said.

Watson, a native of New York City, has served in the Army Reserves for 22 years but has only now been deployed.

"At first (deployment) was a little scary," he said. "But just like anything else you get used it. Day to day you basically do your job, try to stay cool, try to avoid dangers and basically think about home."

The following day Ashlee's principal permitted her to miss school to spend the limited time she had with her father. They spent the day doing what she wanted: playing video games and eating junk food, Watson said.

He flew out to visit family in New York City last Sunday afternoon and will fly back to Iraq the day after Thanksgiving, returning indefinitely in June 2006.