Watch Soldier Surprise Family at Anaheim Ducks Hockey Game

Sgt. 1st Class Robert Vandenberg spent nearly a year deployed in Afghanistan.

ByABC News
December 12, 2014, 1:58 PM

— -- A military wife who went to an Anaheim Ducks hockey game Wednesday night for the chance to Skype with her deployed husband on the arena’s Jumbotron was understandably shocked when her husband instead appeared next to her.

Patricia Vandenberg had absolutely no clue she would see her husband of 12 years, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Vandenberg Jr., who had been deployed for nearly a year in Afghanistan, and Vandenberg said keeping the secret from his wife was the hardest thing he has ever had to do.

“We’re best friends and we’ve never kept anything from each other,” Vandenberg, 43, told ABC News. “I had to pretend like the Internet was going out, and that we were returning equipment and wouldn’t be able to talk, and that I couldn’t do FaceTime anymore.”

Vandenberg was nearing the end of his third deployment, this one at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, when he got word that the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks were looking to surprise a returning soldier for the holidays at one of their games.

Vandenberg and his fellow soldiers each submitted a one-page essay on why they wanted to be selected to go home early, and a seven-member panel chose Vandenberg out of the group.

Vandenberg, a U.S. Army reservist who also works as a campus officer at a local high school, found out that his wife was pregnant with their second child two weeks before he was deployed last February.

The child, a son they named Travis, was born Sept. 24 and had never met his dad before Wednesday night's surprise. The couple’s other son, Robert, is 17 months old.

On Wednesday night, the whole family was at the game under the guise that Vandenberg had been chosen to talk to his family on the big screen.

“It was the only way that I would get her to go to a sports event with two small children,” Vandenberg said of his wife.

Vandenberg had flown in previously and was staying at a hotel across from the stadium at the Ducks organization's expense. The team even went so far as to pay for all of Vandenberg’s expenses so his wife would not see any local charges on their bank account.

“They went above and beyond anything that you can dream or imagine,” Vandenberg said of the Ducks, who also gave him a hockey stick and puck signed by the whole team.

When Vandenberg appeared on the Jumbotron, the reception appeared to go out, giving Patricia the impression that the connection was lost and sparking groans among the fans in the arena.

When Vandenberg then appeared beside Patricia in the stands, the crowd went wild, and Patricia put her hand over her mouth and began to cry.

“She knew the cameras were on her, so she tried to stay pleasant and not too disappointed,” Vandenberg said of the staged lost connection. “When I showed up right next to her, she kind of hesitated because she didn’t believe her eyes.”

Now, the family members are enjoying their time together and getting reacquainted as a family of four in their North Fontana, California, home.

“My older one, he was shy at first, but he’s warming up now,” said Vandenberg, who made videos of himself reading books before he left so his sons could watch.

“My infant has always been very mellow and good for my wife, but when she gives him to someone else, he cries,” Vandenberg said. “The amazing thing is he hasn’t cried when I hold him unless he’s hungry or needs a new diaper.”

Vandenberg will have a few weeks off before he returns to his civilian job in the New Year. He has already enlisted for another six years as an Army Reservist but said that there will not be much that can top the experience the Anaheim Ducks gave him and his family.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will last a lifetime,” he said. “My wife said, ‘This is the best Christmas gift ever. We don’t have to go shopping or anything. We’re together.’”