Vietnam vet comes home to a surprise holiday makeover

Within a few hours a team of volunteers put up strings of lights, festive trees and a blow-up Santa dressed in military fatigues

Carli Teproff
Miami Herald

Marine veteran Patrick McMullan came home Tuesday night after volunteering at his Mormon temple, expecting a frozen burger from the freezer for dinner and and a quiet evening with his wife.

What he got instead was a round of applause, a salute from Miami Senior High’s JROTC and a fully decorated, holiday-ready house with more than 1,000 LED lights.

But what struck him the most were two flags — the Stars and Stripes and the Marine Corps flag — mounted in front of his doorway and flying proudly.

“That means a lot to me,” said McMullan, 77, a Vietnam veteran who was an active Marine for 28 years, 24 as a Reservist. “It’s beautiful, especially with the lights around it.”

The holiday surprise is part of an effort by FPL to surprise military veterans with an energy-efficient holiday makeover. Within a few hours a team of volunteers put up strings of lights, festive trees and a blow-up Santa dressed in military fatigues. McMullan’s wife Ann was in on the surprise. She was overwhelmed.

“I am just so thankful that they are honoring my husband in this way,” she said, choking up. “I am very proud that my husband was a Marine.”

The McMullans got an added surprise of a $2,500 Home Depot gift card and some gadgets that would make their home more energy efficient.

FPL came knocking on the McMullans’ door thanks to their neighbor Frank Cantero, an Army veteran who works for FPL.

Cantero said that he has known the McMullans for about 20 years, and that there isn’t a more deserving family. He came up with the idea of nominating his neighbors after Patrick McMullan told him it was too hard for him to decorate.

“It gutted me,” he said, remembering FPL’s holiday program, which the company has done for the last few years, but never in Miami-Dade. “This is our way of saying thank you.”

The team of elves arrived at the one-story corner home in the 2800 block of Southwest 18th Street just outside of Little Havana. They came with boxes and bags full of lights, trees and snowflakes.

As the transformation from a bare home to a winter wonderland took place, Ann McMullan was taken back to her childhood memories.

A Miami native, she grew up in the home where they are living now, and her mother always decorated the house for Christmas.

“People always came to see our house,” said Ann, 76.

The couple graduated from Miami High in 1958. They didn’t know each other, but met the next year at the Big Wheel Drive-In. She was there with a girlfriend when he rolled in with two buddies. They went bowling and he asked her out.

Their courtship mainly took place through the mail, she recalled with a smile. He attended what was then Clemson Agricultural College in South Carolina, now Clemson University, and graduated with a degree in dairy science. He was also enrolled in the JROTC. He joined the Army, but after about a year, he switched to the Marines.

McMullan, nephew of the late Miami Herald editor John McMullan, served during the Vietnam War for 13 months, from 1966 to 1967. He remained in the Reserves for more than two decades. He and his wife raised five children.

In the early 1990s, McMullan retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel. During the course of his career, he worked for various food companies throughout the United States.

About 13 years ago, the couple moved back to Miami, where McMullan is a substitute teacher at Ronald Reagan High School in Doral through the Troops to Teachers program.

Ann said they talked about going to Idaho for the holidays to see their children and grandchildren, but “it’s too cold.”

So when Cantero asked whether she liked the idea of the lights, she was thrilled.

When McMullan drove up to the house, he barely got out of the car when all the elves began clapping.

“What’s the occasion?” he said.

The JROTC from the couple’s alma mater presented the colors. Carlos Zarruk, 18, a student and member of the team, said he was honored to be a part of the surprise.

“It’s important to let veterans know we have their backs, just like they had our backs,” he said.

McMullan put his hand to his heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and then shook everyone’s hand.

“This definitely makes the holidays brighter,” he said.

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©2017 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service