When her daddy was deployed to Baghdad, Natalee Barker was just a little girl, pounding on a window at the airport, screaming for him to come back.
He didn't turn around that day, but he did eventually come back to teach his daughters lessons about truth, duty and valor.
Barker, 15, of Hunlock Creek, read the essay she wrote about her dad, Rick Barker, Sunday evening at First Presbyterian Church in Wilkes-Barre.
The setting was an awards dinner for an essay contest on the topic Honor & Respect: What I most learned from my family member who is in the military.
And her tribute – first-place winner in the high-school category – was just one of many during an evening filled with recollections of sacrifice, service and noble goals.
Losing with honor is better than winning without it, college winner Laura Heck, 24, of Forest City read from her essay, citing a lesson from her father, who is in Afghanistan.
From commanding a ship to swabbing a deck, everything you do should be done with excellence, read middle-school winner Leandra Ramos, whose parents both served in the Navy.
From this day forward, my son would be teaching me, adult winner David Cupano of Hanover Township said, recalling his son Jason's determination, after 9/11, to join the U.S. Marine Corps and make the world a better place.
His son is serving in Guatemala, Cupano said, and telephoned his dad just before the elder Cupano was called up onto the stage.
He doesn't know about this yet, Cupano said.
The essay contest was sponsored by the Family Service Association of Wyoming Valley, Generation 2 Generation, Tri-Vets Community Action Team and The Times Leader, and attracted 187 entries in five categories.
He doesn't like mushy stuff, adult finalist Margaret Yoh of Kingston remarked during the meal, explaining to her table mates that her father figure, a Vietnam veteran named Bill, still didn't know as of Sunday she had written about him.
But he always liked the salute to veterans at the end of Wyoming Valley West band concerts, Yoh's 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, reminded her.
While finalists and guests, at least 100 people in all, feasted on happy chicken, vegetables and lo mein noodles donated by Eric and Rosa Lee, Peking Chef owner Eric Lee was in the First Presbyterian kitchen, personally ladling food onto plates.
He's so humble, Charles Barber of the Luzerne Foundation said. He doesn't want to take credit, but this was all his idea.
Culinary students from Luzerne County Community College created an enormous cake that, thanks to a bit of sculpting with a serrated knife and a layer of fondant icing, gave the appearance of an American flag waving in a breeze.
As she helped cut the cake, LCCC student Alyssa Jaskulski, 20, of Nanticoke, mentioned one of her uncles was a Navy SEAL and another had been in the Marines.
While she's grateful for their service, she said, she doesn't feel called to follow in their footsteps.
For 15-year-old Barker, though, military service is a distinct possibility.
The high-school essay winner, who earlier Sunday had captured two awards in cheerleading competition, said she'd like to join the Air Force and study business, psychology or architecture.
Would she like to be a pilot, too?
If they say, ‘Do you want to fly a plane,' I'll say yes, she said with a grin. I'm up for anything.
Barker's complete essay, along with the first-place essays in the elementary, middle school, college and adult categories, will be published in The Times Leader on Nov. 18.
Nick Patton, Greater Nanticoke Area, first place
Ella Urosevich, St. Jude's School, Mountain Top, second place
Raymond Sabatini, Holy Family Academy, third place
Leandra Ramos, Greater Nanticoke Area, first place
Brianna Phillips, St. Jude's School, Mountain Top, second place
Michael Kafka, Lakeland Junior/Senior High, third place
Natalee Barker, Lake-Lehman, first place
Caroline Hayduk, Coughlin High School, second place
Jessica Keihl, Hanover Area, third place.
College: Laura Heck, Commonwealth Medical School, first place; Brandy Wright, Luzerne County Community College, second place; Michelle Gitkos, Luzerne County Community College, third place;
Adult: David Cupano, Hanover Township, first place
Margaret Yoh, Kingston, second place
Karen Rierson, Shickshinny, third place.