For Gaithersburg Marine, a surprise homecoming

November 20, 2011

Editor’s note: Were you in suspense after reading Saturday night’s article about Lance Cpl. Matthew Rodgers on PostLocal.com? Here’s the rest of the story.

The proclamation was in the mayor’s hands. The marching band, all warmed up. The firetruck and police cars stood on call. And Pinky and Pepe Rodgers were in their beer and wine store in the Kentlands shopping complex, wondering why their store was suddenly so crowded.

But where was Matthew?

Of those assembled, Pinky and Pepe were the only ones who didn’t know their eldest son was supposed to come home at 8:40 Saturday night. For seven months, Matthew Rodgers, a 20-year-old lance corporal in the Marines, served in Sangin, Afghanistan, helping troops avoid roadside bombs in an area that has been particularly dangerous. It was the longest he had ever been away from his Gaithersburg home, where his 17-year-old sister, Tori, helps run Pinky & Pepe’s Grape Escape. He told Tori he wanted to surprise them.

It was supposed to be a small, family prank. But Tori kicked it up a notch.

She and best friend Rachel Lipman organized a parade. It was a chance for Tori to show just a smidgen of her devotion.

But Matthew’s plane got stuck in Cleveland.

“I don’t know, it doesn’t look like we could get him here before midnight,” said Ben Garey, Tori’s uncle. “Maybe . . .

“I’m optimistic,” Rachel said.

“We’re gonna make it happen,” Tori insisted.

Before Matthew was a lookout for the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, he looked out for Tori and their brother, Andrew, a freshman at Frostburg State University. Matthew taught Tori how to throw a perfect spiral and would laugh with her while watching animated films.

Two years ago, he left to join the Marine Corps.

“I was so surprised he wanted to go,” Tori said. “It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also so scary.”

The family has always been close. When Matthew called from Sangin, his mother, Pinky, and his father, Pepe, always hogged the phone. In conspiring with Matthew, Tori felt a little closer to him. She shared the details with Rachel, who works with her at the store.

“And we thought, what if we do something outrageous that no one would ever expect us to do?” Tori said.

Ideas started to flow. What if they got all their friends and family together to surprise not just their parents but Matthew, too?

What if they got the marching band at Quince Orchard High School to play in the parking lot?

What if they got a firetruck?

No, no. What if they organized a whole parade?

The marching band was onboard. Tori encouraged the fire department to support a family of civil servants: Her father was a Prince George’s County police officer.

She and Rachel took a dozen doughnuts to the police department in hopes of sweet-talking them into the plan. Rachel got Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz to issue a proclamation.

For municipalities, such events can take months to plan. It took the two teenagers fewer than 10 days.

“It turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be,” Rachel said.

They spoke proudly of Matthew. He is the type of brother who always puts his family first. The type of son who won a free cruise, then gave it to his parents. The type of Marine who saw his friend’s limbs blown off by a bomb, then collected the friend’s boots from a nearby tree and saved his dog tags to give to him when they reunited.

But even with the planning and excitement, it seemed that everything might go wrong at the last minute. Matthew’s arrival time — 8:40 p.m. — came and went.

Pepe Rodgers grew suspicious as friends and family stopped by the store and had no interest in leaving. He sent a message to Tori, who was supposed to be babysitting.

At 9:11 p.m., Tori told a family friend to spill the beans to her father. But don’t tell mom, she implored.

Then came a text from Matthew. His plane was arriving at Dulles International Airport at 10:51 p.m. Tori and her Uncle Ben jumped in the light blue Toyota Sienna, packed with a red, white and blue party outfit that Rachel had bought for Matthew.

Tori persuaded the agents at the ticket counter to give her access to meet her brother at Gate A1, and she arrived there at 10:57 p.m.

“Matthew!” she said, hugging him. “Look at your hair! It’s so blond! You’re so skinny! Let’s go.”

Matthew, in a black sweatshirt, poked at his sister and then walked by her side. He laughed about a call he got from Rachel, who sounded frantic about his arrival.

Back in Gaithersburg, Rachel told the 26-person marching band she would completely understand if it went home. She gave the same message to the police escorts, the firetruck, the mayor.

Just before midnight, the Sienna made its way to the parking lot. Matthew noticed the red, white, blue and yellow balloons and the police lights.

“Is something going on?” Matthew said, dressed in his patriotic outfit.

“We planned something big!” Tori said.

The firetruck and police escorts began to roll. The marching band blared “America the Beautiful.” The mayor gave the proclamation, and another for Caleb Getscher, a 20-year-old Marine from Chaptico, who lost both legs and his left arm after stepping on a bomb. Getscher, who attended the homecoming celebration, was the one whose dog tags Matthew had saved.

Another surprise.

Out came Pepe, beaming. And Pinky, teary-eyed and flabbergasted to see her son home early, on leave for Thanksgiving. Rachel and Tori shepherded a crowd of nearly 100 people back into the store, where they had set up 10 boxes of cupcakes, wine, beer, energy drinks, iced tea and four cakes.

Someone handed Caleb a knife, so he could start cutting. Matthew ran over to help him.

Pinky stared at the two of them, still in tears. She hugged a friend.

“Motherhood is great, isn’t it?” she said. “I can’t believe he’s home and he’s safe.”

Read more on PostLocal.com:

Giving back in S.E. Washington

Penn Staters seek solace on game day

Prince George’s County police seek mistakenly released murder suspect

D.C. Mayor Gray shakes up staff

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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