No matter where she’s been stationed the last decade, Air Force Capt. Emily Arthur’s mother Jeanne McConnell has always found a way to surprise her on her birthday.
The challenges differed from year to year, base to base. McConnell snuck a cake into the Air Force Academy during Arthur’s freshman year. McConnell also embarrassed her in front of her first command with a sheet cake made from a childhood photograph of 12-year-old Arthur in a Star Trek costume.
“She’s usually absolutely horrified,” said McConnell, a USO Delaware volunteer. “She’s got a prankster for a mother, and of course most of the time it’s totally embarrassing. But I know she loves it.”
Arthur deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, presenting McConnell her most challenging surprise birthday connection to date. The Taliban were attacking Arthur’s base nightly to protest the burning of a Koran.
“It was my 30th birthday, so it was kind of a big one,” said Arthur, who was born Feb. 28, 1982. “And you know, I was sad, because it’s hard enough being away from home. I’d pretty much written off any chance of receiving anything.”
Arthur had just arrived at Bagram Air Base. Her mail wasn’t showing up yet. And with all the mortar attacks there wasn’t much celebrating going on.
McConnell knew there was a USO at Bagram, so she thought she would at least give it a try.
“It’s always been a challenge, but I’ve never been unsuccessful,” McConnell said. “But I really thought Bagram was going to be my Waterloo.”
Through a sequence of emails, however, Jeanne was connected with Scott Wilhite, the director of the Pat Tillman Memorial USO at Bagram East, who told McConnell he’d find a way to make the moment happen.
“It may not be the traditional birthday cake,” Wilhite wrote, “but we will think of something.”
Working only with the information that Arthur worked in contracting near the main gate, the USO was able to track her down and deliver the birthday surprise.
“A group of people came into the building and I thought for sure they were just more customers,” Arthur said. “But when I saw the USO logo, I just knew my mom sent them and the tears started flowing.
“It made a huge difference for me I just thought ‘Wow, I cannot believe she was able to get something to me from halfway across the world through the USO.’”
“It still makes me cry to think about all those people helping us reach out and touch our daughter in the war zone,” McConnell wrote in a thank you email to Wilhite. “THIS is why I volunteer … to pay it forward for all the USO’s around the world that have been there for Emily and her husband during their [Air Force] careers. I want to be that volunteer that makes that ‘special day’ for someone else’s son or daughter.”
This year, Arthur’s parents flew out to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, to visit her on her birthday.
But this Feb. 28, Arthur had a surprise of her own. And it has to do with McConnell’s birthday later this fall.
“We already got your present,” Arthur told her mother. “But you have to come here to get it. It’s going to be delivered on your birthday.”
“What is it?” McConnell asked.
“Your first grandchild. I’m pregnant!”
–By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Multimedia Journalist