DOVER — When Staff Sgt. Ariel Morales left Dover Air Force Base on New Year’s Eve for a six-month deployment to Southwest Asia, he wondered if he could surprise his loved ones when he returned.
He’d seen videos of surprise reunions before, and he wondered if he could pull off the same thing.
It wasn’t until he started to make plans with Sarah McGrath from Red Frog Events, producers of last weekend’s Big Barrel Country Music Festival, and Capt. Bernie Kale, in the public affairs office at the 512th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base, that it started to feel like it could become a reality.
“The way I was thinking was, the worst thing they could say is no, and they said, ‘Yeah, we can pull it off,’” he said
Wednesday, the week after he returned home.
Before he left, family members had bought tickets to Dover’s Big Barrel. Staff Sgt. Morales knew he would return around the same time as the weekend of the festival.
Then he got an idea.
When he landed for his deployment, Staff Sgt. Morales sent an email to guest services at Red Frog, wanting to know if they’d ever planned a surprise like this before.
A week later, Ms. McGrath wrote back. It was a great idea, she said, and she’d like to help. When was he coming back?
That was the hard part, because he wasn’t certain.
With help from Capt. Kale, though, he was able to start planning the specifics and work out a return date just in time for Big Barrel.
His wife, Mary, who picked him up from the airport in Baltimore on June 23, was in on the surprise and helped plan it.
When Staff Sgt. Morales finally arrived home three days before the start of Big Barrel, Staff Sgt. Morales tried to stay out of sight in his Little Creek home until the Friday night of the festival.
Most of the couple’s family members live in the same town, “so we were trying to sneak by their houses so they don’t see us,” he said. Some folks had already thought he’d be back in time for Big Barrel, so he had to play it off as if he’d miss it.
At one point, his mother-in-law came by for a visit and he had to hide in his own home for an hour and a half.
When he finally got to the Woodlands of Dover International Speedway on the festival’s opening night of June 26, Ms. McGrath picked him up and he found out that headliner Blake Shelton, one of Staff Sgt. Morales’ favorite artists, might be interested in introducing him to the crowd and his family.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to meet him but him announcing my name recognizing me when I was walking in front of him was a big deal,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Morales hid in the VIP area to the left of the stage until it was time. He didn’t know when Mr. Shelton was planning to introduce him or what the country music star would say.
Finally and appropriately, just before his song “Home,” Mr. Shelton stopped to say a few words.
“... I found out tonight that Sgt. Morales” — the family started to cheer — “just got back from a six-month tour overseas,” he said.
“Sgt. Morales, do they know you’re here? Do they know you’re here?” Mr. Shelton asked while the crowd cheered and the cameras at Big Barrel swept over to him kissing his wife.
“It was pretty exciting. Most (family members) had no clue what was going on,” Staff Sgt. Morales said.
Organizers at Red Frog had upgraded the entire family to VIP for the rest of the festival so they could be waiting for him close by after the announcement.
“That right there ... it just blew my mind,” he said.
As to not to spoil the surprise of Staff Sgt. Morales’ homecoming, Ms. McGrath wrote an email to the family that said he had contacted Red Frog to ask for the upgrade, so that although he couldn’t make it, they could enjoy it even more.
Siblings, cousins, parents and close friends were at the concert that night — nearly 50 people.
“It was definitely an emotional time,” Staff Sgt. Morales said.
“Some of them, they said, ‘Oh, we knew you were coming home.’ (But) they really had no idea,” he said.
“The majority of them were just in tears and happy and said ‘Hey, he’s home.’”
They barely listened to the rest of the concert, he said. They were just so happy to be together.
“This was my second deployment, so without (my friends and family), I wasn’t able to make it through as easily as I did,” he said.
The couple enjoyed the rest of the weekend at the Woodlands, checking off the acts they wanted to see, celebrating and driving to their home in Little Creek each evening — as a family together again.