Twenty-five years ago, Mark F. Donahue married his wife, Heidi, with their dog and a judge as the only witnesses.
But this year, in front of nearly 200 people, he expressed his love to his wife onstage at the Riverside Center Dinner Theatre.
What's more, the Army National Guard major planned most of the surprise event while serving in Afghanistan.
The Stafford man was able to come home for his oldest son's high school graduation this month. But he knew he wouldn't be able to return for his wedding anniversary in August, so he came up with a way to honor his wife while he was in town.
Heidi Donahue knew the whole family would be attending Saturday night's opening performance of "Ring of Fire," a musical tribute to Johnny Cash. What she didn't know is that her husband and Riverside artistic director Patrick A'Hearn coordinated a ruse that had her standing onstage during intermission, holding a "winning ticket."
Her prize? Her husband—who managed to sneak off and change into his full military uniform first—bearing a sapphire ring with a matching necklace and earrings, all specially made in Afghanistan.
Choking back tears, Donahue told the theater audience, "I couldn't ask for a more supportive wife."
He talked about his absence for four of the last 10 years, and Heidi's dedication to raising their two sons, Brandon and Alan.
"I can't thank you enough," he told his wife. "I love you and hope you know that I'll do anything for you."
The couple then shared a short dance to "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole, a song they used to listen to when they were dating.
They ended intermission with a kiss.
'A REAL WONDERFUL WOMAN'
The setting for the surprise flashes back to their 1988 engagement at a dinner theater in Jacksonville, Fla., the city where they met when Donahue served in the Navy.
The couple was quickly and secretly married by a judge just before Donahue deployed. While they admitted their marriage to Heidi's family, Mark's found out the next year at their traditional church ceremony.
Donahue originally joined the Army National Guard in 1981, serving for four years before joining the Navy. He returned to the National Guard in 1993 and since 9/11 has been deployed several times.
Donahue is about halfway through his current deployment to Afghanistan, duty he volunteered for.
"It's a great purpose," he said.
Despite his dedication to the military, he has a strong bond with his family and praises his wife.
"She's put up with a lot being a military spouse," including handling much of the parenting, he said. "They've got a great foundation because of her. She's a fantastic mom."
Older son Alan is an Eagle Scout who recently graduated from North Stafford High School and will head to the University of Florida on an Air Force scholarship in the fall. Sixteen-year-old Brandon is working toward becoming an Eagle Scout and is a rising junior at North Stafford.
Heidi volunteers for Stafford schools and works as a substitute teacher and librarian.
"She's sacrificed quite a bit," Donahue said, adding that she worked to put him through his last nine months of college. "She's just a real wonderful woman."
A NICE SURPRISE
Heidi Donahue, who grew up in a military family, said she is used to life as a military wife. It's tough not having her husband for basic daily challenges, especially while raising two teenagers, but she remains positive.
"The unexpected always happens. You just handle it and move on," she said.
While Saturday's surprise succeeded, Heidi said she was a tad suspicious ahead of time.
"I was thinking something was going to happen, but I had no idea that was," she explained. "I was taken aback. I was touched he planned all this."
While Donahue was still in Afghanistan, he emailed the theater, saying he wanted to surprise his wife at the show. A'Hearn helped him hammer out the details and even made a big production out of drawing Heidi's name from a hat during Saturday evening's intermission.
Donahue took it from there, gushing about his wife in front of a rapt audience before giving her the jewelry.
When asked how they usually celebrate their anniversary, the whole family chuckled.
"I'll be honest, we don't really celebrate our anniversary," Heidi said, "so this is really a surprise."