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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Navy petty officer travels from Afghanistan to Nashua to celebrate grandmother’s 80th birthday

NASHUA – After two months of planning, international flights and more than five hours in the car, Navy Petty Officer Danielle Ketel slipped through the back door of the Ahepa 35 Manor on West Hollis Street and into a human-size box for an 80th birthday surprise.

When Rose Pollina came down the elevator and stepped out to find her daughters, family and a large birthday present, she simply didn’t know what to expect. ...

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NASHUA – After two months of planning, international flights and more than five hours in the car, Navy Petty Officer Danielle Ketel slipped through the back door of the Ahepa 35 Manor on West Hollis Street and into a human-size box for an 80th birthday surprise.

When Rose Pollina came down the elevator and stepped out to find her daughters, family and a large birthday present, she simply didn’t know what to expect.

She didn’t expect to see so much of her family, and she certainly didn’t expect a 4- by 5-foot birthday present.

Five minutes earlier, the scene in the elder-care home was one of emotion and haste.

Family members from all over New England gathered. Ketel had just made a five-hour drive to Nashua from New York. Ketel’s family members from Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York met in front of the gray elevator in the apartment building.

Ketel hurried from her car to the back door.

After she embraced her family, snapped a few pictures and wiped a few tears, she was helped into the brightly decorated box that was made by her aunt, and waited anxiously as the elevator doors began to open.

When Ketel popped out of the box, Pollina was speechless and seemingly lightheaded, prompting a few people to reach out to keep her upright.

The lobby of Ahepa 35 Manor was filled with family, friends, media and building personnel, but neither Pollina nor Ketel seemed to notice the people crowded around them or the cameras capturing photos and video of their long embrace. Relatives of Ketel and Pollina said Ketel’s time in Afghanistan had been hard on all of them, but especially for Pollina.

“I thought I was dreaming or maybe I died or something,” Pollina said, wiping away tears. Two lines of mascara ran down her granddaughter’s face.

Ketel, an intelligence specialist for the Navy, has been serving in Afghanistan for nine months, and made the trip back in order to celebrate Pollina’s 80th birthday with her family.

Ketel was thrilled when she received the news in late February that she was granted a two-week leave. She immediately thought of surprising her grandmother.

Pollina, who has a close relationship with Ketel, told her relatives that she didn’t want to celebrate her 80th birthday until her granddaughter was home from Afghanistan.

She refused to have cake or open presents until Ketel, whose tour is slated to end in October, returned.

Little did Pollina know that what she planned as a quiet and solemn observation of her ninth decade would quickly change for the better.

“I made so many trips to the airport picking up family members who flew in to witness the surprise and see Danielle,” said Sue Jordan, Pollina’s daughter and Ketel’s aunt, who helped plan the surprise.

“Hopefully, she doesn’t have a heart attack,” Jordan said before the surprise.

Pollina didn’t have a heart attack, but was at a loss for words in the moments after the reveal. She managed to express her gratitude for the surprise with a quiet statement about her loyalty to her granddaughter.

“The thing is, I was going to stay 79 until November; that was the plan,” she said.

Lauren Lawrence can be reached 594-6466. William Wrobel can be reached 594-6589.