PANAMA CITY — When she walked into the Hiland Park Elementary School library on Friday, 11-year-old Natalia Gilbert was greeted not by the school librarian but by a surprise guest — her dad. 

It had been over a year since Maj. Christopher Gilbert, an Army intelligence officer, had seen his daughter. Maj. Gilbert lives in Virginia and travels frequently in the service, while Natalia lives in Bay County. So the fourth-grader was shocked when Gilbert popped up unannounced at her school at the end of the school week. 

“It’s exciting because I haven’t seen him in, like, a year,” Natalia said. “I didn’t know he was going to surprise me right here in the library. ... I definitely want to go to the beach, and on Saturday I have a soccer game so we’re going there, too.” 

Her dad is only staying in Panama City for four days but is making the most of his short visit. 

“I was telling her, ‘Honey, I’m coming to see you soon,’” Maj. Gilbert said. “It’s good to be here and see my daughter and the school.” 

Natalia’s mother, Nicole Gilbert, was also at the library for the visit and said she was excited her daughter got to see her dad. 

“I’m happy we were able to surprise her because all week she’s been trying to get it out of the family,” Nicole Gilbert said. 

During his visit to the school, Maj. Gilbert also answered several questions from Hiland Park students: how long he’s been in the military (16 years), whether he’s been in any wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and what he likes about serving the country, to which he responded that it’s an “honor” to defend America’s freedom so the students and others have a future. 

“I love the military. It’s the moral principles of what you’ve got to do to protect home,” he said to the small group of youngsters in the library. “I train a lot. I just came back from training. It’s like schoolwork. If you want to be good in math, what do you do? You constantly look at math.”