HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - David Diebold had mixed feelings as he prepared to walk up on stage at his 'Iolani graduation ceremony.
He was excited, sure. But he was also missing someone special.
"Bittersweet, yeah. Like, 'I'm done but, I don't have the people who I want to be here'" he said.
It's hard to blame him.
His mother, Army Col. Karen Burmeister, had been deployed in Afghanistan for the previous five months.
But when he went to get his diploma, something absolutely unexpected happened. A pair of ferns that were on stage began to move and shake, then out from behind them sprang his mom, in full combat fatigues.
"I just felt the rush of emotion, just all the baggage of being without her," Diebold said.
His mom adds, "When I hugged David he was really wet from tears."
Burmeister got clearance from the Army to end her deployment a few weeks early so she could be there for the important day.
She left Afghanistan, made stops in Germany, New Hampshire and Texas before hiding out with a friend in Aiea two days prior to graduation.
Not only had she made it home successfully, she did so covertly, all so she could surprise her family.
"The fern's kinda split on stage and she popped out, and my only reaction was 'oh my gosh,' said her husband, Army Col. CJ Diebold. "I was just standing there dumbfounded."
To fully appreciate the moment is to understand the hurdles they -- and all families with deployed military personnel -- face, day in day out.
While Burmeister was in Afghanistan, just daily routines -- getting to school and work -- got tough.
The day would start at 5 a.m. from Mililani.
Diebold would drive to work at Tripler, then hand off the car to his son, who would head to school.
With David Diebold's athletics and his father's work, the days would end 17 hours later.
For five months they did this, until Burmeister's surprise return.
"It was just one of the best moments of my life," said CJ Diebold.
Burmeister added, "It was even more special than I thought it was going to be."
"Just seeing my mom again," her son said, "was amazing. Just hugging her."
So what's next for the family?
Both colonels will retire from military service within the next year.
Meanwhile, David Diebold is headed to Santa Clara University this fall. His older brother, Michael, is beginning graduate school at Willamette University in Oregon.