The Unknown Soldiers: Surprise of a Lifetime

When Jodi Foster stepped onto Nashville’s LP Field during the Tennessee Titans-Washington Redskins game on Nov. 21, she thought she was simply being recognized for an essay she wrote about her husband, Sgt. Mark Foster.

Standing beside the couple’s 12-year-old daughter, Kayla, the 33-year-old Army wife got a nice surprise when a video message from her husband, who was deployed with the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan, played on the NFL stadium’s Jumbotron.

While it certainly made for a poignant memory, the mother and daughter would still have to head home after the game and join Cody, 18, and Hunter, 17, to prepare for another Thanksgiving holiday without dad. Maybe Sgt. Foster would get to call from his remote Forward Operating Base that day, but that would be about as much face time as they would get.

Then, just after the video message played, nearly 70,000 football fans started screaming, quickly growing louder and louder. The military wife sensed that something big was about to happen.

“I was looking around the field and didn’t really see anything except the huge Jumbotron” Jodi told The Unknown Soldiers. “I could not believe it; he wasn’t due on leave until (December), but then I saw him coming out on the golf cart.”

As soon as Jodi and Kayla saw their soldier, they ran quicker than any NFL running back closing in on the end zone, and clutched him tighter than a defensive lineman pulling down a quarterback for a sack.

As they embraced on the 10-yard line, a capacity crowd and many more watching at home saw what it really means to be a nation at war. Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton put it best when he said, “This may be the highlight of this game.”

Of the almost 70,000 people inside the stadium that day, the surprise meant the most to young Kayla, whom the couple call “daddy’s girl.”

“My dad loved me enough to adopt me,” Kayla is quoted as saying in the family’s winning essay. “No one gave me to him, mom. He picked me.”

The improbable, emotional moment that captivated many around the nation was one that the soldier himself never thought would occur.

“I didn’t expect to go out on the field,” Sgt. Foster told me from his family’s home on Fort Campbell in Kentucky. “In fact, I didn’t find out until after I landed in Nashville. But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, keeping it secret from my family that I was coming home.”

Many good folks inside the Army, Tennessee Titans football team and the Camp Crossing housing community where the Fosters live came together to give this military family a much-needed holiday boost.

This is Sgt. Foster’s fifth combat deployment, having served four previous tours with the Screaming Eagles in Iraq, and with a concerned wife and three children at home, it hasn’t been easy. In addition to missing his family, the soldier has also been dealing with the loss of brothers in arms like Staff Sgt. Brandon Silk, a fallen hero with whom Foster served.

“Staff Sgt. Silk was a great guy; there’s nothing bad that I know of or can say about him, and so many of us knew him on a personal level,” Sgt. Foster said of his fallen comrade. “People knew him when he was in Korea, and when he first got to Fort Campbell, and he was just an awesome guy, a great guy, who is truly going to be missed by a lot of people.”

Silk, a 25-year-old Black Hawk helicopter crew chief who was nicknamed “Silky Smooth” in high school before developing a tough-as-nails reputation in the Army, was killed in a June 21 Afghanistan helicopter crash. The Orono, Maine, paratrooper is survived by his wife, parents and two brothers.

“Emotionally, we’re all in this job, and we know what we’re up against,” Sgt. Foster explained. “It sucks, and next to losing a parent, spouse, or child, I don’t know of a harder feeling. But we all know the risk involved when we join. We also know that, yes, we have a fallen comrade, and we’ll all take time to mourn, but we still have a job to do.”

While there are many unsung heroes of America’s post-9/11 conflicts, the courage displayed by spouses of our deployed troops and returning veterans is frequently overlooked. I asked Foster’s wife how she manages the household, children, finances and many other critical responsibilities during her husband’s frequent deployments.

“Like I tell my mom, I have to put on my brave face,” Jodi quickly responded. “I have to … I have no choice, because if I fell apart, what happens to my kids?”

The newest member of the Foster family, adopted about two years ago, has been a rock during the last eight months, despite being just 12 years old.

“She’s stronger than I am,” Kayla’s proud mom said. “(After) we first dropped him off to deploy, I spent a few days crying and in bed, but she got me up, told me he’d be fine and kept me strong.”

Four days after the surprise of a lifetime, the family celebrated Thanksgiving together.

“It’s the best feeling ever, having him home after eight months,” the soldier’s wife said. “It’s been amazing.”

“It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s great being home,” Sgt. Foster added.

About a week after our conversation, the soldier returned to Afghanistan to finish his deployment. The humble warrior calls himself “lucky” to be assigned to a Forward Operating Base with better communications capabilities than most in the rugged, war-torn nation where the Sept. 11 attacks were planned. Despite relatively reliable phone lines and a decent Internet connection, some of the calls back home are tense.

“(Jodi) still gets to hear my voice, and I get to hear hers,” he said. “But sometimes there is incoming fire in the background, and I hate when she has to hear rounds and (the call drops), and she has to sit here for hours pondering.”

Sgt. Mark Foster will almost certainly be wishing his family a Merry Christmas over the phone or Skype this year. But with the memories of the family’s special, unexpected Thanksgiving together still fresh, Jodi insists that her deployed husband will still be joining his loved ones for Christmas dinner.

“We’ll put his picture on the head of a chair, and maybe even put a video camera on the chair. We’ll stay connected. He may not be here this year, but he’s still a part of Christmas and our lives.”

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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