When Donna Hammerschmidt pulled up to Gillette Stadium on Dec. 29, she was excited enough at the mere prospect of seeing the Patriots play at Gillette Stadium for the first time. It was made even better when the tickets she believed to be standing room only turned out to be in a suite.
But it wasn't until later on that the real excitement of the day hit.
Donna and her two sons, Ethan and Will, live in North Carolina and were spending the holidays with her extended family in Massachusetts. Donna's husband, Dave, is a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and as far as she knew, he would not be back in the U.S. for another month or so. As a 19-year serviceman, this was his 13th deployment.
Instead, halfway through the third quarter, a Gillette Stadium employee showed the Hammerschmidts their options for dessert in the back of the suite, stalling just long enough for Lt. Col. Hammerschmidt to walk through the door. In a second, the thoughts of brownies and ice cream were forgotten as shock and joy washed over.
"It was almost kind of like a dream state. It was a very surreal moment to see him walking in," she said. "I couldn't even think. I couldn't really process what was going on in that moment, honestly."
Though it was a surprise for his wife and kids, it was as much as a surprise for Lt. Col. Hammerschimdt too. He had hoped to pull off a surprise of some kind, and when he woke up on the morning he was due to leave Iraq, he saw two text messages. The first was from his wife, saying how excited she was to go to the Patriots game. The second was from Donna's aunt, asking him to bring home his uniform and not to ask why.
Then he put two and two together.
"I literally had to repack all of my kit," he said. "I have bags full of equipment that I use when I'm deployed and I just fly over with a small carryon bag. It was like a movie scene. I'm like tearing stuff out. It was comical and funny how it all came together."
The surprise was a success, in part, because of the timing. As Donna realized her family, including her aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, were being upgraded to a suite, she thought in the back of her mind, "Maybe Dave will be here." When they arrived, he was nowhere to be seen. As halftime passed, she let go of the idea that he was coming home early.
Ultimately, the family was stunned by the early homecoming, and Donna said she was glad her kids were able to experience something like this. Though their daughter Ashley was away at school for the moment, their sons had a truly special day that will help on the days their father isn't there.
"It was nice for them. They miss out on so much," Donna said. "I can't tell you how many birthdays and holidays and Thanksgivings we've missed. For the kids to experience that, that was just awesome. I don't think they get enough credit for what they have to go through."
As far as Lt. Col. Hammerschmidt is concerned, it's not just their kids who deserved that moment. They started dating just before Lt. Col. Hammerschmidt was deployed. They met only three times before his first time in Iraq, and in the subsequent years and deployments, he recently calculated that he's spent a total of five years away from his family.
"She's been through it with me, thick and thin through the years," he said. "To see the happiness on their faces, to enjoy seeing the shock that the three of them were going through, that really just made me happy."