When Rachel Wache walked on stage at the 83rd Annual Meeting Wednesday night to receive the 2012 Unsung Hero Award, the last thing she expected was a visit from her own personal hero.
A member of the American Legion Auxiliary, Wache finished her speech and was preparing to exit the stage when Beth Smedick, president of the YMCA Board of Directors, stopped her and announced there was a special visitor to see her.
That’s when Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Nicholas Augelli walked into the room, a bouquet of flowers in his hand, to see his grandmother for the first time since leaving for Afghanistan in July 2011. Wache looked to her right, then covered her mouth is amazement as an audience of over 350 people began a standing ovation.
“I never expected this. I’m still in complete disbelief,” Wache said after the ceremony, a tear still in her eye and a smile running ear to ear. “It really doesn’t get any better than this.”
Augelli’s cousins, Megan and Paige Wache, and his aunt Connie Wache were also left in tears as they watched Rachel and Nicholas embrace in a long hug on the stage in the front of the Kay’s Pier Ballroom at the Aqua Turf Club.
It was the reaction that Augelli, a member of the guard’s 103rd Security Forces Squadron, was hoping to get from his grandmother. Rachel Wache’s family has had a long line of military service, but never had she been so emotional in seeing them come home.
The surprise return, orchestrated by Augelli with the help of his parents, provided an uplifting atmosphere for everyone in the room, but no one was happier about his arrival in Southington than Wache, who has long supported the troops through a variety of programs.
As a past president of the American Legion Auxiliary in Southington, she has a long history of service in the community and in supporting the troops. She was the founder of the Heroes to Hometown program, which helps injured soldiers returning to Southington, and has been involved in providing countless care packages to troops serving in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“When he walked in, I almost fell over. All I kept thinking was he’s here, and he’s OK,” Wache said. “It was so tough to watch him leave last year. I’ve been to many deployments, but it’s different when your own are involved.”
“I started to tear up a little. I knew I was going to but it was worth it to deliver this kind of surprise,” Augelli said. “When I was away, we didn’t get to talk very much because our schedules were always busy. But she would send me letters every week telling me what was going on and how much everyone missed me.”
After learning in November that she was going to receive the Unsung Hero Award, Wache wrote a letter to her grandson telling him that the one thing she really wanted was to have him home for the ceremony. Augelli immediately knew he wanted to do anything he could to fulfill his grandmother’s wish.
So when his squadron was told they would be arriving at the Bradley Air National Guard Base for the first time since leaving for Afghanistan last July, he immediately contacted his parents and asked them to help keep his return a secret.
“They told me the squadron would be coming back in waves. He wasn’t supposed to be here until mid-February. At least that’s what I thought,” Wache said.
Sherri Palumbo, standing beside Augelli’s brother Adam and his father Brett, said it was difficult for the family to keep it a secret, but it was well worth it.
“He got back late Monday night and basically had to hide. He kind of stayed in the basement and made sure she didn’t know he was home yet,” Palumbo said. “It was worth it. To see her reaction tonight, that was just an awesome surprise. It was hard sitting through dinner and waiting for it.”
Connie Wache and her daughter Megan said they couldn’t hold back the tears as they watched Augelli and Rachel in their long embrace on stage. The family has always been close, she said, and no one expected him to suddenly appear during the ceremony.
The family had been through long period before without seeing Augelli, who has served for over seven years, but none was as difficult as this last deployment. He wasn’t home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas and it was hard to think that he might not return, Connie Wache said.
“I’m still crying. We are all still crying,” she said. “I just don’t know what to say other than we are excited he’s here and he’s back with us.”