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MOUNT VERNON, Iowa – A salute to military personnel was accompanied by a welcomed family reunion.
On a night the Cornell wrestling team honored military personnel, the stage was set to bring a part of the Rams wrestling family back together.
Cornell sophomore 174-pounder Brent Hamm, his mother, Elisha, and younger sister, Chandler, received a happy surprise before the Rams' dual against Augustana (Ill.) Wednesday night at the Small Multi-Sport Center. Brother and son, United State Army Reserve Specialist Andy Hamm, emerged during a ceremony to join his family for the first time in about a year.
Brent Hamm appeared to be stunned before embracing his brother for a few seconds ahead of team introductions. Chandler stood shocked with a dropped jaw when she saw Andy Hamm, whose father, Mike, was unable to attend due to a work conflict. Elisha Hamm was emotional.
"It was a surprise," Elisha Hamm said. "It's funny when you're the one in the focus. A lot of things run through your mind.
"We're just thankful that he's home. That's really all that matters."
Brent Hamm said he thought the ceremony was special and then seeing his brother in person added to it.
"It was pretty awesome," Brent Hamm said. "It's real important we honored all the troops and then to have him come out like that in front of everyone made it more real and inspiring."
Andy Hamm, 23, checked the Cornell wrestling schedule online and received approval for Dec. 12 from his commander. He contacted Rams Coach Mike Duroe and Athletics Director John Cochrane about a possible announcement to be made before the dual. He flew to Texas, staying for a week. He traveled to Iowa, "hiding out" in Ames for a couple days.
"You always see cool stuff like this on TV all the time," Andy Hamm said. "I've always wanted to do something awesome for my family, because they've always been so supportive, especially over the last five years from everything I've done from Iraq to Guantanamo Bay."
Duroe and Cochrane responded within three days of the initial email, and had grander plans. Hamm welcomed the salute to all military personnel, because friends who died overseas never received a homecoming.
"They took the idea and ran with it," Andy Hamm said. "Next thing I know is they were getting emails about doing a whole event for all veterans in the area. I thought that was really cool."
Duroe and Associate Director of Athletics Dick Simmons toiled to plan the event, and to maintain the secret.
"Mike Duroe and Dick Simmons have really been the leaders on this," Cochrane said. "I know they spent a lot of time on it."
Cochrane said last night provided a chance for people to put things in perspective. He was on-board immediately after first contact with Andy Hamm. Cochrane said he was proud to play a role.
"Far too much we take for granted or fail to recognize service men and women, who have, and continue to, lay down their lives for the rest of us," Cochrane said. "All of the freedoms and liberties we have in this great country have been established on their backs and graves."
The organizers were stealthy. Very few people knew about the plans, including the Hamm family. Andy Hamm was stashed in the Cornell football office prior to the meet. Butterflies fluttered as the ceremony neared.
"The homecoming is the best thing you can ever experience," Andy Hamm said. "So many nerves, anxiety and excitement."
Andy Hamm showed his appreciation for the effort, presenting Cornell with an American flag that was flown near his building at the Guantanamo Bay base for 9 minutes and 11 seconds as a 9-11 tribute.
Military personnel, veterans and their families were asked to stand on the gymnasium floor as they were honored. An audio message from Andy Hamm followed, which ended with a plea to turn to the door behind the Rams' bench from which he appeared.
Andy Hamm has been deployed twice in the last five years, and said the possibility exists for another deployment. If it happens, he will fulfill his duty. For now, he will enjoy time with family, taking a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to watch the Rams wrestle again.
"It was a special night," Elisha Hamm said. "We've always felt like Brent can wrestle and do the things he wants to do because his brother is fighting in a war. We're proud of both of them."
Hamm has served five years, spending time in Iraq and recently at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He hadn't seen his family in almost a year. It seemed like an eternity for a tight-knit group, which experienced the death of Andy Hamm's uncle, Max Jones, six months earlier to the day of the reunion.
"This is the longest span I've done in the military without seeing my family," Andy Hamm said. "It's been a rough year for the entire family. I'm super excited my cousins and everybody is (here). It's such a special day."
Andy Hamm, like his younger brother, also wrestled at City High. He encouraged Brent to go out for the sport in high school, and is proud that he is wrestling in college. He enjoys watching his brother compete. Brent Hamm admires his older sibling.
"He's everything, man," Brent Hamm said. "He does something not a lot of people can do, go serve."
Unfortunately, Brent Hamm (9-8) lost his match and Cornell lost the dual, falling to 5-2 overall.
"I didn't want to put my brother in shock and cause him to have a horrible meet," Andy Hamm said. "I do miss watching my brother wrestle."
The Hamms have missed Andrew as well.