Grand Forks, ND (CNN) — Grand Forks Central High School’s graduation started out like any other. There were speeches, music and, of course, handing out diplomas.
Proud parents watched on, but for one student something was missing: her father.
“I don’t think I really realized that he wasn’t going to be here until he called me, because it was the same number that he’s been calling me from the past five months,” said Taylor Crafton.
Crafton’s father, Chris, a member of the U.S. Air Force, had been deployed to Cuba months prior.
The Craftons didn’t think Chris would be able to make it so they had a cardboard cutout made.
“My mom’s friend, she made it for us back in Virginia and sent it to us for prom and for graduation so he could still be here in spirit,” Taylor said.
But as it turns out they didn’t need it at all. Chris rushed on stage as Taylor was about to receive her diploma in a whirlwind of hugs, screams and tears.
“I’m just so happy he’s here,” Taylor said. “(It’s) better than a car, better than anything, so yeah, that’s all I wanted for graduation.”
Since Taylor was three months old, Chris has gone through nine deployments.
“For a total of about 1,782 days to be exact,” Chris said. “I’ve missed a lot, you know, birthdays, Christmas, that kind of thing, so I just tried my best to get here for when she graduated. This is my last deployment so I had to make it happen.”
But this wasn’t just a surprise for Taylor. No one in the Crafton family knew Chris would be here.
“These are just things you see on YouTube or on TV, you know, it’s nothing that really happens to people you know, so it’s just the best feeling in the world,” said Chris’ wife, Paige. “This is one time he even surprised me.”
A surprise for the family, but not for Chris, who said the family photo wouldn’t be right without him in it.
“This is a once in a lifetime thing I have to do for her, so I’m just glad it happened,” Chris said.