A Soldier's Surprise

Tuesday, May 20th 2008, 1:01 pm
By: News On 6

A soldier from Coweta got the surprise of a lifetime when he got home from Iraq. Andy Stiles' classic 1973 Barracuda was secretly restored and waiting on him when he got home. You may have seen the new look to the old car when it was unveiled last weekend, but you have to hear about how the whole thing happened.

News On 6 anchor Craig Day reports it's a story that he and Photojournalist Michael Blair have been working on since February.

It was an automotive makeover that took a lot of creativity and hard work to pull one over on the unsuspecting soldier.

Homecomings for soldiers are always special and the celebration in Coweta was a big one. Quite a few people showed up to welcome home Stiles, who just returned from Iraq.

It was a big secret being pulled over on Stiles, one that's been in the works for months.

It began months ago, with an idea to do something special for Stiles.

"He is going to be so thrilled.  You have no idea," said Andy's wife, Tammy Stiles.

For 30 years, Andy Stiles has owned an old muscle car, a classic 1973 Plymouth Barracuda.

For much of the time it's been sitting in a rented storage unit or parked in the garage.

"This has been his baby.  In fact we call it his first wife because he's owned it for so long and will not get rid of it," said Tammy Stiles.

The soldier's wife had tried talking him into getting rid of the old car, but Andy wouldn't have it. So, family and friends decided to have the old Barracuda restored as a surprise while Stiles was overseas.

"Andy, he volunteered to go, he did not have to go to Iraq.  And with that giving spirit, we just felt like we really wanted to do something and give back to him," said Andy's pastor, Gary Rogers.

So the classic car was rolled and winched and coaxed onto a trailer, on the way to a nearly four month long secret automotive makeover.

"Everybody says he's just going to start balling like a baby," said Tammy Stiles.

From Oklahoma, the classic muscle car hit the road back to its former glory.  A 15 hour journey that stretched more than 600 miles, all the way to Wyoming, where a talented group of volunteers secretly took over the mission.

The car ended up at a place called WyoTech, a 1,400 student automotive campus in Laramie, Wyoming, where students learn automotive technology.

WyoTech volunteered to tackle the transformation.

"Why we are doing this?  One because we love working on cars and two, Andy, the owner of the car, deserves this," said WyoTech Program Manager Bill Mickleson.

Out of more than 100 who applied to work on the project, only 25 were selected, based on grades, attendance and a desire to use their talents on a project that is much larger than themselves.

"For the cause that it's for, it's bigger than I think we all realize," said Project Manager Eric Paul.

All of the volunteer work is done on their own time, after school hours.

"It's a very small token of our appreciation for the armed forces of the United States and all the contributions they are making to us," said WyoTech President Guy Warpness.

One of the Wyoming students selected for the mission was Kyle Ferrel who is actually from Mannford, Oklahoma, only an hour away from soldier Andy Stiles' home.

"It's someone from my home state, so I can relate to him a lot better," said Ferrel.

Restoring the old Barracuda wasn't easy. Volunteers put in more than 2,000 hours, outside of their coursework, meaning a lot of long nights and weekends.

There was so much to be done and time was running out.

"The headlights, the bumpers, the grill," said Paul.

"We've put brand new quarter panels on it, we've straightened all the door panels, fender panels, the hood panel, trunk panel," said Mickleson.

"We've got engine.  We've got transmission.  We've got cross-members, shift linkage, we've got front suspension, rear suspension, steering components, the whole interior," said Paul.

"The clock is ticking.  And it is ticking faster.  It's ticking loud," said Mickleson.

The bleached out red classic was being turned into a totally new and different bright yellow.

"He definitely won't lose it in the parking lot," said Warpness.

Finally, after months of planning, hard work, and secrecy, the day came.

That's why all the people showed up, including the Wyoming students who made the trip to Oklahoma.

The time had finally come for the big surprise.

"When I first took my blindfold off, I thought no way.  There's no way because it would take too long to fix my car up," said a surprised Andy Stiles.

"It's absolutely gorgeous," said Tammy Stiles.

Andy Stiles says it's hard to believe the students put in so much work just for him.

"Wyoming?  Good Lord," said Andy Stiles.

And that everyone, from those students, to family and friends, and even fellow soldiers in his unit, kept it all quiet.

"This is beautiful.  I had no idea. I thought maybe my wife may fix up my tractor or something, not my Barracuda," said Andy Stiles.

"Just to see him so happy, and to see so many people so supportive, is just amazing," said Tammy Stiles.

"I'm glad that there is a lot of people out there who are willing to help other people.  That makes me feel good," said Andy Stiles.

Now every time he gets behind the wheel of the classic muscle car, each time he hits the road, he'll think of the secret, the surprise and the support one soldier got from so many.

You may be wondering why WyoTech? 

A neighbor had family members who went to school at WyoTech years ago. One thing led to another and the car ended up in Laramie, Wyoming.

Since the unveiling, Stiles has been busy meeting with some Collinsville elementary students who wrote to him while he was in Iraq and of course he's been busy showing off the car to a lot of people.