Military deployments can be hard on soldiers, but they also can be hard on the families left behind.
Army wife, Jodi Foster, knows first-hand how difficult it can be to find ways to stay occupied during long separations from her husband, Sgt. Mark Foster of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade out of Fort Campbell, Ky.
To help alleviate some of the boredom, Jodi decided to enter a contest she saw online sponsored by Actus Lend Lease, the company that handles military housing at several other military bases, LP Building Products and the Tennessee Titan's football franchise.
Special to The Niles Times
Sgt. Mark Foster, of Niles, surprises his wife and children Nov. 21 at a Tennessee Titans football game by arriving on the field in a golf cart, after what was supposed to have been just a short video message from his post in Afghanistan. His wife, Jodi, and daughter, Kayla, were at the game as guests of the Tennessee Titans after Jodi won first place in an essay contest sponsored by the team franchise and a military housing company.
''The house was clean, the dishes were done, my daughter's homework was finished and I was bored,'' Jodi said.
Jodi wanted to do something different with the contest's theme, ''From the Front Lines to the Goal Lines, '' so she contacted their children, Mark's son Cody, 18, and daughter Hunter, 16, and Jodi's daughter, Kayla, 12, whom Mark had adopted, to ask what they thought of their dad.
''I was surprised at what they told me,'' Jodi said. ''I never knew this is how my kids thought.''
Jodi was happy to learn she had taken first place out of 250 entries and had won a four-day trip to Nashville, $500 spending money and a VIP pass to a Tennessee Titans football game. During the game on Nov. 21, Jodi and Kayla were called onto the field to watch a surprise video message from Mark from Afghanistan.
''They put a mic on me and I was standing on the field trying to hear what he was saying (in the video),'' Jodi said. ''I tried not to cry. I knew there were 70,000 people watching.''
And then the crowd began to roar, Jodi said, and suddenly a golf cart sped onto the field carrying Mark to his family.
''Time stopped,'' Jodi said, ''and I couldn't get to him fast enough. This was the best thing that's ever happened to me besides the birth of my daughter and our wedding day.''
When he was contacted by Armed Forces Network to record the video, Mark came up with the idea to change his leave so he could surprise his family in person. He arrived in Nashville the day before the game and was hidden away in a nearby hotel for more than a day before he could see them.
''For two hours, before they brought me out onto the field, I could hear Jodi talking through her mic, but couldn't see her,'' Mark said.
Mark grew up in Niles and graduated from Howland High school in 1991. He soon joined the Army, but got out after his first tour of duty to pursue civilian life.
''At the time, I thought, maybe this isn't for me,'' Mark said.
As a civilian, he joined the Air Force Reserve, but after two years, he missed the military life and reenlisted in 2004.
''Now I'll be there as long as they keep me,'' he said.
Mark has had five deployments during his military career. The last three, since his reenlistment, included two tours in Iraq and now Afghanistan. The longest deployment was 15 months and the rest have been 12 months, he said.
Returning to Ohio for Thanksgiving was an improptu decision after the surprise homecoming. Mark's parents still live in the house where he grew up in Niles and Jodi's parents live in Burghill.
In the essay, Jodi wrote she was impressed by what the children had to say about their dad. Cody and Hunter spoke of how their dad's support and sacrifices have affected their lives.
''Dad never gave up on me when everyone else did,'' Cody was quoted in Jodi's essay. ''He laid out my life's path in front of me and taught me the skills to follow it on my own. I see the honor in his eyes every morning he puts on that uniform and one day I want my family to look at me the way we look at dad.''
Cody, a senior at Joseph Badger High School, will follow in his father's footsteps and enter the Army next summer.
Hunter said, ''My dad drove in a snow storm at 35 mph from Kentucky to Ohio, normally a nine hour trip that ended up taking 16, just to spend a few hours with me and hold my hand after my knee surgery, then had to leave the next morning to make it back to work on time. If that's not a true sacrifice, I don't know what is.''
But it was Kayla's comment that got to the judges, Jodi said.
''My dad loved me enough to adopt me. No one gave me to him, mom. He picked me.'' Hunter said.
Jodi expressed her own thoughts in the essay by adding, ''I am proud of him for enduring what he does and the sacrifices and choices he has made in life to give us the life we have today.''
During the Titan's game, the couple's family and friends gathered at BW3's in Niles to watch the event live.
''This is always going to be home,'' Jodi said. ''This is where our hearts are at.''
Since Mark's surprise homecoming, the Fosters' cell phones have been ringing with requests for interviews. They have been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Army Times, Military Times and others. This week, they are being flown to New York City for an interview with Fox Friends' and Family for a Christmas program the network is putting together, Jodi said.
''My mother told me to enjoy my 15 minutes of fame, but I can't help think of the time I would rather be spending with my husband,'' she said.
Mark goes back to Afghanistan next week but will return at the end of his deployment sometime in March.