LAS CRUCES — U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Janae Ratledge stood at the entrance to the gymnasium and began crying the moment she saw her daughter.
Jazmyn was now 10, a cheerleader and now a foot taller than the last time Janae had seen her in person. That was in July 2017, before she deployed with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss for a nine-month tour in Kuwait. Jazmyn stayed with friends in Las Cruces and enrolled at Fairacres Elementary School.
Janae, a 14-year Army veteran, raised Jazmyn alone and the two formed a close bond, which they kept during the deployment. They talked nearly every day on video chats that traveled halfway around the Earth. When they weren’t talking, Jazmyn would sing into her phone, record it on an app and hit send. Janae would play it for Jazmyn’s adoring fans in the Kuwaiti mess hall.
During one of their recent chats, Janae told Jazmyn she would be home soon, on Tuesday to be exact. But Janae arrived at Fort Bliss earlier than expected, and headed to Las Cruces last Friday to surprise her daughter.
Jazmyn’s caretakers told Janae that her daughter wouldn’t be at Fairacres that day, she would instead be competing in the Razzle Dazzle Cheer Competition being held at Las Cruces High School. It would be the cheer squad’s final performance of the year, in an important competition, and one she wouldn’t want to miss.
So, Janae went to the high school, dressed in fatigues, and peeked inside the gym. She saw Jazmyn — dressed in an orange and white cheerleading outfit with bows in her hair, talking to friends Janae had only heard about. Jazmyn didn’t see her mom.
Janae said she began to bawl, so much so that she was approached by the event organizers who asked if everything was alright.
“I told them who I was and what I was doing there and they said, ‘We’re going to do something huge for you,'” Janae said. So, they hid her and asked her to write a message.
Janae’s message, telling Jazmyn that she was beautiful and letting her know her mom was proud of her, was read on the loudspeakers as Fairacres took the mat.
From the corner of the gym, Janae watched Jazymn and the Fairacres squad perform for the first time. The team’s routine elicited loud cheers — it would finish second in its division.
The crowd continued to cheer following the team’s performance as Janae came out onto the gym floor and headed toward the squad. Jazmyn said it took her a second to realize what was happening.
“Then, I said, ‘That’s my Mom,’ And I threw my hands in the air,” Jazmyn recounts.
“She saw me and the pom poms were gone. My baby came a running,” Janae laughed.
The two embraced on the gym floor and didn’t let go for nearly a minute, garnering the loudest cheers of the day from the thousands in attendance.
“Then the waterworks started again,” Janae said. “It was so amazing to see my daughter.”
‘Most amazing Mother’s Day’
Janae said the two had the “most amazing Mother’s Day” weekend following Friday’s surprise.
They sang, they cooked, they talked (a lot), they moved into a new house at Fort Bliss, and they shared gifts.
“She would tell me on the phone, ‘Mommy I have such wonderful (Mother’s Day) gifts for you,'” Janae said. Janae’s gift to her daughter was matching bicycles, which they took for a ride after church on Sunday.
Along with new puppy Molly, a Cane Corso breed, and Needles the cat, whom they adopted before Janae’s deployment. the family is now whole again.
Janae said she’s deployed twice before, when Jazmyn was 5 months old and again when she was 2, but this time was different because her daughter could communicate how she felt.
“I was scared. And a little sad,” Jazmyn said when she learned her mom would be gone for nine months.
The first three months of the deployment were hard, Janae said, but Jazmyn, a fourth-grader, started making friends at her new school and found companionship on the cheer squad. Mom was a phone call away, if needed. And Jazmyn was there for Mom, as well.
“I’m proud of my mom. She’s taking care of our country, making sure the bad people aren’t being bad to others,” Jazmyn said.
Janae said her daughter’s words “make me feel she understands why I have to leave. And when I hear that, it makes me say, ‘I must be doing something right.'”
Jazmyn will be attending an El Paso school next year, but the two will always share a powerful moment in Las Cruces, one that was captured on video.
“I watch that video all the time. And I cry every time I watch it,” Janae said.
Lucas Peerman can be reached at 575-541-5446, firstname.lastname@example.org and @LittleGuyInATie on Twitter.
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