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Deployed member, family enjoy surprise reunion during baseball game

  • Published
  • By Chris McGee
  • Aeronautical Systems Center Public Affairs
Filled with anticipation and excitement, Kim Thigpen and her two sons - Jacob, 11, and Caleb, 5 - walked onto the baseball diamond May 27 in front of nearly 9,000 fans following the conclusion of the second inning.

They were attending a minor league game between the Dayton Dragons and the visiting South Bend Silver Hawks.

The drizzle that had fallen earlier couldn't dampen the giddiness the three felt at the opportunity they would soon have to speak via satellite transmission with their deployed husband and father. The Dragons' public address announcer explained that Capt. Jim Thigpen would be broadcasting from 'somewhere in the Middle East.'

The image of Captain Thigpen registered on the large video screen behind the outfield fence. The captain is a member of Aeronautical Systems Center's 726th Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright-Patterson AFB, which manages the B-2 stealth bomber,

Just after Captain Thigpen exchanged an opening hello with his family, the video feed seemed to fail, to the collective groans of the crowd.

Mrs. Thigpen hung her head in frustration. As seconds passed, a thundering roar rose from the stands, prompting her to turn and identify the source of the sudden deafening cheer. It was Mrs. Thigpen's husband emerging from the first base dugout and running toward her, a bouquet of flowers in hand.

Captain Thigpen gathered his wife and children in a long, heartfelt embrace. The crowd roared its surprise and approval. Numerous eyes shed tears of joy, and cameras flashed as the crowd and family comprehended the happy surprise that was unfolding.

Unbeknownst to Captain Thigpen's family, the Dayton Dragons, Dayton Development Coalition and Wright-Patterson AFB officials had orchestrated a plan to keep Captain Thigpen's return from deployment a surprise. Those involved wanted to reunite Captain Thigpen with his family at the game as part of the ball club's ongoing Hometown Heroes program, which honors Air Force men and women deployed overseas from the base and supports their families.

The plan proved a success, although Captain Thigpen couldn't wait for the evening to arrive. He had returned from a four-month deployment to Iraq, where he served in contracting as the construction flight commander. It was his second tour of duty in Iraq and fourth in the Middle East.

"Honestly, I thought the moment would never come because so many things had to work out right," Captain Thigpen said. "Once I arrived in Dayton, time seemed to stand still. It was so tempting to just call my wife. All I wanted to do was be with my family."

Whatever agony, impatience or nervousness Captain Thigpen felt proved to be worth the wait when he darted onto the field.

"The positive energy was simply overwhelming; I was so excited and nervous," the captain said. "The crowd was absolutely incredible, and to finally see my family face-to-face was, hands down, one of the happiest moments of my life."

According to Mrs. Thigpen, the frustration and disappointment she initially felt at the 'failure' of the satellite broadcast quickly receded when she saw the surprise unfold.

"The only thing that was going through my mind when the feed died was 'I'm not going to cry in front of all these people,'" Mrs. Thigpen said. "When I saw him on the screen, I don't even remember hearing the crowd cheer. All I wanted to do was touch him and make sure it was real."

Being reunited with a spouse and parent returning from deployment is special enough. But experiencing such a moment as a surprise in front of thousands of baseball fans added a special touch that left the crowd buzzing.

"I still cannot begin to put into words what it means not only to have him home but to be reunited in that way is definitely something we will never forget," Mrs. Thigpen said. "My kids are huge baseball fans, and to see their dad on the field for the first time was, as they would say, 'very cool.'"

Captain Thigpen expressed his gratitude to the Dayton Dragons for creating not only a night his family will never forget, but for supporting military members and their families in general.

"In my opinion, the Dayton Dragons are the real heroes in this story," Captain Thigpen said. "They choose to use their influence to support the military and their families, and that speaks volumes."