(SHELBY, N.C.) — An unexpected event stole the show during the annual Christmas parade in Shelby, N.C.
Specialist Walter Smith, 26, returned home early from Afghanistan to surprise his family along the parade route by popping out of the backseat of an antique Shelby police patrol car that was part of the celebration.
“I was the lucky one that got to carry him,” Shelby Police Chief Jeff Ledford told ABC News. “It was well worth it. That was a highlight of the parade. They had no idea.”
One of Smith’s cousins, Gloria Philbeck, works as a telecommunicator for the police department and asked Ledford if the department could help organize the surprise. He obliged, and was excited to take part in the family’s special moment.
“She came to me about a week ago and said he was coming home. They wanted to make it special and make sure that nobody would know. So we just started arranging,” Ledford said. “How do we pull this off and make it really cool? So we lay him in the backseat and cover him up with a raincoat.”
Once the patrol car reached the point where Smith’s family was located on the sidewalk, Ledford stopped the car, walked over to Smith’s grandmother and told her Santa had an early Christmas present for her.
“We had our Honor Guard keyed in so they knew. They spun around to salute him,” Ledford explained. “It was one of the coolest moments, other than the grandmother’s face when I told her Santa was bringing them a present a little early. The look on her face was priceless.”
“He goes halfway to the family and he heard the Honor Guard salute him. And he turned around and saluted them back. That’s when the crowd erupted. They heard his grandmother screaming, and that’s when they knew they were witnessing something amazing. You almost didn’t want to go back and finish the parade. You just wanted to stay there and celebrate.”
Smith, who had been deployed to Afghanistan for seven and a half months, originally wasn’t scheduled to return home until April 2013. But the second he learned of his early homecoming, he started planning the surprise.
“I was planning it as soon as I knew I was coming home,” Smith said. “I knew the Christmas parade was the week after I came home, and I knew they’d all be there. They all went crazy when I showed my face. I think my grandma and my mom were the most excited.”
But they weren’t the only women he rushed home to surprise. His baby daughter, Serena, was born two and a half months ago.
“I got to see her for the first time. It meant the world to me,” said Smith.
Smith is home for good now and is keeping busy Christmas shopping and playing with his little girl.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ivana Kottasova, CNN
Sara Zendehnam, CNN
Stephen Collinson, CNN