By Timothy E. Rodrigue
United States Army Sergeant Andrea Huff watches from the darkness of a makeshift foxhole, ready to complete her mission. The journey leading up to this moment has been arduous, lasting five days and covering some nearly 8,700 miles. All that remains now is to wait.
Not far away, Ariana Huff stands on the precipice of one of her life’s greatest accomplishments—graduating from the LSU E. J. Ourso College of Business. She doesn’t know it, but she’s about to be ambushed. In fact, Ariana’s entire family is about to be ambushed at the college’s spring 2012 diploma ceremony by Andrea, whom they haven’t seen since Christmas.
IT STARTED WITH AN EMAIL
At the beginning of May, Sergeant Huff contacted the E. J. Ourso College with a request:
My name is SGT Huff and I am with the 45th Sustainment Brigade (Schofield Barracks, HI) and we are currently deployed to Afghanistan and not scheduled to return until 2013. My baby sister, Ariana Huff, is a business major at LSU and is expected to graduate this May. She is the last member of my family to receive her diploma and I would Love NOTHING more than to make it home to see her walk across the stage.
In her email, Sergeant Huff explained the huge age difference between herself and Ariana. Their relationship is more like mother and daughter than anything else. Her ultimate dream was to be there for Ariana’s special day and to personally hand her diploma to her. This was a moment Sergeant Huff had been planning for since she deployed to Kandahar in Afghanistan.
“I knew I had to make it happen for my sister because that’s my baby sister, and I wouldn’t miss my baby sister’s graduation,” Sergeant Huff said. “I’ve been to everything she’s ever done in her life, and I refused to let a rocket attack or anybody or anything else stop me from making it to her graduation.”
There certainly were obstacles that Sergeant Huff had to overcome, including working out the details with Alumni & External Relations. That process began roughly eight days prior to the diploma ceremony and was hindered by a nine-and-a-half-hour time difference between Baton Rouge and Kandahar. Then there was the actual trip.
WAKE UP, WE’RE BACK
Kandahar, Afghanistan to Kuwait City, Kuwait – 1,049.5 miles (2 hrs., 21 mins.)
Kuwait City, Kuwait to Berlin, Germany – 2,382.4 miles (4 hrs., 57 mins.)
Berlin, German to Atlanta, Ga. – 4,717.1 miles (9 hrs., 48 mins.)
Atlanta, Ga. to New Orleans, La. – 434.1 miles (1 hr., 4 mins.)
New Orleans, La. to Baton Rouge, La. – 78 miles (Approximately 1 hr. drive time)
The previous itinerary represents Sergeant Huff’s scheduled travel plans, all 8,661.1 miles of it. There were some unscheduled plans that took place, too.
Preparing to leave Germany, Sergeant Huff buckled in and dozed off. She would be in for a rude awakening.
“That was mean,” Sergeant Huff said. “It was funny at the same time, but it was mean because I was in a deep sleep and I thought we had made it. I thought it was the fastest flight ever. It was the fastest 10 hours, but actually it had only been 45 minutes.”
Unbeknownst to Sergeant Huff, while she lay in slumber, the plane had lost an engine, was leaking fuel from a wing, had turned around, and had touched down back in Germany. The delay to repair the aircraft lasted 16 hours. Instead of arriving Thursday morning in Baton Rouge with time to spare, Sergeant Huff wouldn’t be getting to New Orleans until 3:00 p.m. on the eve of the diploma ceremony.
Less than two hours before the diploma ceremony was set to begin, Sergeant Huff sat in an office on the fourth floor of the Rotunda in the Business Education Complex. Already she had been to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center that morning and had staked out a place to hide until springing her surprise. Now, she was enjoying a three-finger combo box from Raising Cane’s and setting up her family for one of the greatest shocks of their life.
During her time overseas, the Huffs have become intimately familiar with Skype and the Internet phone service magicJack. Using her magicJack number, Sergeant Huff called her family, which was en route from McComb, Miss. for the day’s event.
“You sound a lot clearer today,” one relative remarked during the conversation in which Sergeant Huff reminded her family to Skype her so she could see the diploma ceremony. Apparently, magicJack works better when less than 50 miles separates you from your party, as opposed to more than 8,000 miles.
Sergeant Huff didn’t say a word, but her eyes and smile screamed, “I’ve got ‘em.”
Some 45 minutes before the start of the actual ceremony, Sergeant Huff settled in to her spot behind the diploma ceremony’s platform party stage. Openings on either side allowed her to peek out, but she avoided doing so too much, making sure she didn’t ruin the surprise she traveled more than the diameter of the planet by about 600 miles to spring.
“I was behind the stage, and I was waiting,” Sergeant Huff said. “I was getting a little anxious and nervous at the same time, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there are so many students out here who are about to graduate.’ But I was just imagining what it was going to be like and how surprised my whole family was going to be. Then the time came...I took pictures of myself, I watched them try to Skype me and call me and try to reach me, and I was just like, ‘No. I’ve got to ignore it.’ I ignored the calls and I was laughing the whole time because I knew they would probably be upset if I didn’t answer.”
The diploma ceremony progressed quickly, including a keynote speech by retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, appropriately enough. Master’s degrees had already been awarded, as had bachelor’s degrees to the college’s graduates in accounting, economics, and finance. Next up were the general business graduates, including Ariana.
For those unfamiliar with the procedure, students are seated alphabetically, approach the stage on the left side as they are facing it, hand a card with their name on it to an announcer, and then walk across the stage to receive their diploma from the dean and take a photo. Graduates then leave the stage to take another photo with another professional photographer in front of a green screen. Now, imagine this process has been moving along without interruption and then all of the sudden the dean stops the entire process right when you get to the top step of the stage. That’s was Ariana’s experience.
“Andrew, I’m sorry, but I need to stop the ceremony here.”
Dean Eli Jones brought the 2012 Spring Diploma Ceremony to a screeching halt with that statement and produced a bevy of moans and groans from the audience. Internally, Ariana was questioning the stoppage as well.
“I was like, ‘Why did they have to stop on my name? Something would have to go wrong now,’” she recalled.
Quickly, Jones reassured everyone the reason for the delay wasn’t bad. He then proceeded to describe in detail Sergeant Huff’s ordeal in getting to Baton Rouge without identifying her by name. By this point, Sergeant Huff was waiting behind the green photography screen on the right side of the stage, still hidden from Ariana’s view. Then Jones said the three words that sent Ariana into crying mode, “Sergeant Andrea Huff.”
As Sergeant Huff came up the steps on the opposite side of the stage, a stunned Ariana didn’t even wait for her own name to be called. She immediately rushed across the stage and embraced the sister she had last seen almost five months earlier.
“I was so very, very surprised,” Ariana said. “I was not expecting that at all. That was totally crazy…So crazy.”
The entire Huff clan was in shock actually, disbelieving what their eyes were seeing. After all, they
had been on the phone with Sergeant Huff just a few hours earlier, and she was in Afghanistan.
For a moment, the two sisters shared the stage, turning to greet a standing ovation from the audience. Then, Ariana’s name was called; she and her big sister took a picture with the dean while holding Ariana’s diploma; and the ceremony continued on to its conclusion.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” Sergeant Huff said. “I was so glad.”
For Sergeant Huff, two weeks of R&R were to follow—one with her family and the other on a beach in Florida, soaking up some sunshine. Sergeant Huff has always been the practical joker in the family, according to Ariana. So, what can her big sister possibly do to top this?
“I don’t know,” Ariana mused. “She’ll have to bring the president with her next time or something.”
More than likely, Ariana will have to wait until her wedding for her big sister’s next surprise. For her sake, Sergeant Huff just hopes that doesn’t happen too soon.
“I hope they don’t have any other events I have to come back home for now,” she said. “I think I’m done.”
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