DEDICATED soldier Marie Yorston returned home from Gippsland fire grounds for an emotional, surprise reunion with niece Allee on her first day of high school.
Corporal Yorston has been single parent to Allee and nephew Brody since their mother, her sister, died with an aggressive breast cancer about four years ago.
WATCH the moment this family is reunited below
Allee enters year seven at Damascus College, following in the footsteps of her aunty, her nan and her mum Raylee. Desperate to be part of this milestone, Australian Defence Force and Damascus worked secretly to have Corporal Yorston waiting for Allee to arrive for school.
"I've got to make sure (Allee and Brody) are not without, that they've got what they need. I'm not a substitute, I'm not their mum but I'm the next best thing," Corporal Yorston said.
"When looking at high schools, we wanted Damascus. Allee's very much like her mum, they both love drama and art. The whole family's been here. To go here and have the same opportunities is important and it's really important as well for Allee to have that connection with her mum."
Corporal Yorston has been deployed in Operation Bushfire Assist since December 30 and was one of the first Army reservists called to Gippsland fires on New Year's Day. She has been working both as a driver and leading a team of drivers in transporting fire investigators into impacted areas.
What was initially expected to be a couple of days away for Corporal Yorston has stretched into a month from home. She could not organise school books or put names on uniforms - nan Sue Yorston stepped up - but Allee's first day was a moment Corporal Yorston could not miss.
"When you're out there, you try and focus on the job. At nighttime, a couple of times, I let myself think about this day and I would get a bit teary," Corporal Yoston said.
Family have been sharing stories with Allee about her mum's time at Damascus, including some of the cheeky things she would do. Allee arrived at school extra early with her nan and Brody on the pretense they were to pose for an inter-generational school photo and media opportunity for the school.
At first they did not notice Aunty - looking straight to the waiting media pack.
But for Allee, starting at Damascus and sharing this moment with her aunt was so special.
"It's really important and really good to see her here," Allee said. "It was a real surprise and I'm overwhelmed but really happy to see her, I've missed her quite a lot."
The ADF has worked to support its members to try and get home for school milestones. Corporal Yorston is on two days' leave - enough time to see Brody off to his first day of grade three on Friday.
Corporal Yorston is an Australian Army Reservist with 4th Combat Service Support Battalion based out of Ranger Barracks, Ballarat. Her civilian job is a family violence practitioner for Relationships Australia, Victoria.
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