MACON, Ga. — A joyous occasion became a nightmare for Marine Corps Reservist Sgt. Darnell Foster on Thursday when his surprise homecoming was not properly recorded.
Home early following a seven month deployment to Afghanistan, Foster was eager to see his daughters, Kylie, 9, and Denise, 7. He and his wife, Karen, went to the girls' end-of-year assembly at Hartley Elementary where administrators gave him the school's "Hank the Hawk" mascot suit as a disguise.
Once in costume, Foster burst onto the auditorium stage dancing to "Uptown Funk" and invited Kylie and Denise up to join him. When he pulled off his beak the girls were shocked to see their father and jumped into his arms, sobbing hysterically as the crowd exploded in applause.
While videoing the event on the couple's Nikon D800E, Karen noticed the view screen had suddenly gone blank. Frantically going through the memory card, she discovered the camera had malfunctioned and only caught the first eleven seconds of her husband doing the robot, prior to removing the costume head.
Seeing his wife motioning that something was wrong, Foster dropped the children and ran off-stage to check the footage.
"It was heartbreaking on so many levels," said Foster. "First, I waited backstage inside that hawk with my Dress Blues on for at least forty-five minutes. It was a thousand degrees in there. Second, there's no proof the surprise even happened now so what was the point? I trusted Nikon and my wife to get it right and they failed me."
The Department of Defense acknowledges this as a serious issue for returning service members, estimating one out of every eight will have a botched surprise homecoming video during their enlistments. In 2014 they issued a list of questions to consider before attempting to record such a video. Among the highlighted items:
Will you be crouched inside a large cardboard box for more than 10 minutes? Check the sleep-mode settings so the camera stays active during the wait.
Sneaking up on grandma at a busy restaurant? Let the waitstaff know ahead of time so they don't accidentally block the camera's view.
Is your camera of good quality? A video with poor resolution will never get more than a thousand views. Older smartphone cameras are specifically discouraged.
Have you read the camera's instructions and practiced recording videos in advance? Be prepared — don't let a wasted surprise homecoming happen to you.
The Defense Department also recommends holding surprise homecomings at major sporting events whenever possible, so that television cameras can offer a backup in case your personal recording device fails.
Still reeling from his own botched homecoming, Foster feels more could have been done. "I was never briefed about that list. Would have been nice for my command to pass it along before this tragedy," he said.
His wife Karen echoed his sentiments but still holds out hope. "We could have been YouTube famous, but now we just have to pray for Darnell to get shipped off to another war," she said. "With ISIS acting up there's still a chance we'll be able to give this one more try."