Brothers Reunite At Graduation

Wounded Iraq veteran gives his little brother one big surprise

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For Steven Vandermeer, the graduation stage was set and he would walk onto it, not as a behind the scenes Payson High School drama tech, but as a graduate.

What he didn't know, is his brother Jeff, just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, was hiding backstage to surprise him after the ceremony.

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Jeff Vandermeer, right, along with his parents pulled off a big surprise after the Payson High School graduation ceremonies took place Thursday night. Jeff, who just returned from his tour of duty in Iraq was on hand to greet his younger brother, Steven, who was among the graduates. Additional photographs and a list of scholarship winners will be in Tuesday's Roundup.

The first act's set: The northwest stairwell of the Wilson Dome, 6 p.m.

Our stars: Steven Vandermeer as the graduating senior whose goal is to become a stage tech/manager in the theater and film industries.

Jeff Vandermeer, a military police officer in the U.S. Army Reserves.

Other players: Bette and Nick Vandermeer as the parents who were in on the plot.

Bit parts: Steven's friend. A nosy reporter.

Act 1

Steven Vandermeer, stage right, is in the PHS dome dressing room, putting on his cap and gown.

At the same time, unbeknownst to him, his brother, Jeff Vandermeer, is hiding stage left, which in this case is the northeast stairwell of the Wilson Dome.

"Hey, you're Steven's brother," a student says in passing.

"It's a surprise. Don't tell. Steven thinks I'm in Iraq," Jeff replies.

The surprise has been in the cooking stages since September 2007 when Jeff found out his unit's mission in Iraq would be over sooner than expected.

It turned out to be in the nick of time.

Jeff mustered-out, a mere seven hours before his brother was due to solemnly walk to the sound of the Longhorn Band playing "Pomp and Circumstance."

There is an eight-year age difference between the two brothers.

"He's looked up to me since I can't remember when. He wanted to go everyplace I went and do everything I did," Jeff said.

The brothers last saw each other in March when Jeff was home on leave, but the visit lasted a couple of days before Steven left on a drama field trip.

The last time they communicated was via e-mail just after Jeff returned to Iraq.

"I am so proud of Steven," Jeff said.

Scene 2

The angle of the scene changes to the balcony near the darkened stairwell.

Who is this coming? No! It can't be Steven, on his way to greet his dad.

It is.

As the dad-unit moves to block his youngest son's line of sight, Jeff vanishes silently down the stairwell to a vantage point from behind the door.

Yikes! Did Steven see Jeff? Did he hear him talking to the nosy reporter? Is the gig up?

Steven tries to walk around his dad and go down the stairwell.

"You can't go down those stairs," the dad unit says.

The audience, were they paying attention, and not busy seeking their own graduates, would be riveted in suspense as Steven's curiosity piques.

"Why?"

"Because I said so."

Steven turns and walks in the opposite direction.

Ah ha! An 18-year-old who listens!

It was a close call.

To pass a few of the 45 minutes until the ceremony begins, Jeff tells the nosy reporter a tale of growing up with Steven.

"At Christmas, when we were younger, it wouldn't matter what gifts Steven had gotten, even if they were the toys he wanted, he'd always come and be in my gifts."

This time, it will be other way around.

Steven knows his graduation gift is a week at his parent's time-share.

"He thinks he has the week to himself. Steven doesn't know yet he'll be sharing it with his brother," Nick Vandermeer said with a grin.

Scene 3

Jeff remains out of sight all through the ceremony.

At about 2040 hours, as caps and silly string fly into the air, Jeff begins to move toward his brother's chair.

From the balcony, the mother unit's eagle-eyes spot her sons' heads bobbing in the flood of celebrants.

"Would Steven Vandermeer please come to the podium?" a deep voice cuts through the congratulations.

Pushed by a friend, the new graduate heads to the podium.

His face lights up with a huge smile when he sees his big brother.

Jeff's smile is equally large.

"You're home. Oh my God, you're home!"

"Yep. I'm home for good," Jeff said.

Bette Vandermeer's eyes are misty with pride as she watches her sons hug.

She is so excited to get to her family, yet she is patient, waiting for people snapping pictures of their own graduates, as she makes her way through the throng, down the stairs to the floor of the dome.

The brothers are still talking as the nosy reporter catches up.

Were you surprised she asks Steven.

"I was really surprised," Steven replied.

His attention quickly returns to his brother, as though he cannot believe a night could be filled with so many riches.

It might not have been. Back in December, Jeff caught shrapnel in his shoulder when a grenade landed in the ammo can of a gun turret he was next to.

"I am so glad to see you are here," Steven tells his brother.

Cue the happy ending. The curtain falls.

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