- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2020

VALDOSTA, Ga. (AP) - A boy’s trip to the track turned into a homecoming for a South Georgia family.

Travis King III was spending time with his grandmother at the Valdosta Middle School track Friday, running around on the greenery with family members. While posing for pictures, he received an unexpected surprise.

His mom, Jasmine Waters, has spent the past seven months on a Navy carrier out at sea. The Valdosta native hadn’t seen her son in 206 days.

Waters, a yeoman second class petty officer, was aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and was stationed in Norfolk, Va., before returning home Friday to Valdosta.

She arrived at the VMS track a little after 4 p.m. She was nervous, excited and full of emotions, but all the while, she kept a big smile on her face.

She straightened up her uniform. She stayed in contact with her mom. She did everything she could to ensure she would pull off the big surprise for her 10-year-old son.

Pouring rain had threatened her homecoming just hours earlier but the sky was clear late afternoon. Everything Waters planned was falling into place.

As Travis was distracted by a photographer, Waters stepped out of the car with a bouquet in hand and crept up the short staircase leading onto the track.

The atmosphere was quiet though bystanders were present.

Travis was unaware a group of people were behind him; it had only been him, his grandmother and the photographer standing on the track. There was only one person in the group who held the spotlight, Waters.

As Travis was photographed with a navy blue shirt – reading “206 days has been too long. My mom is finally home” – Waters crashed the photo session and made silly poses just a few feet behind him. Still, he didn’t know she was there.

Travis put the shirt down and turned to see his mom standing with the same big smile on her face and flowers in her hand.

After a small run around the grass and joyful shouting, a teary-eyed Travis ran straight to Waters and tightly embraced her in a hug; the first the two shared in seven months.

An occasion of long hugs, kisses on the cheek and happy cries lasted for about five minutes. Waters gave the bouquet of flowers to her mom who had been caring for Travis in her absence along with Waters’ father.

Travis said he was sad while his mother was deployed and he missed her.

“I’m very happy, emotional,” he said shortly after seeing Waters.

After weeks of anticipation, Waters was relieved to finally be with her son.

“I am just so happy,” she said. “I don’t want to go back to work. I want to spend all my time with him.”

The two were unsure what their first activity together would be, but Travis said his favorite thing to do with his mom is cuddle.

During her deployment, which was her first one during her seven-year service, Waters operated in the fifth and sixth fleet. She joined the military first as a reservist, and then, became active-duty.

In the days leading up to her homecoming, she said her seven months away was the longest she’s ever been away from her son. She is on leave and has to return soon to her ship.

“My fear is that he will not want me to leave again. I still have more work to do and this being his first deployment was different for him. He is a very strong kid but our mother-son bond is amazing and he is my best friend,” Waters said.

“I want to ultimately make sure that he understands and that he is OK mentally with knowing there are days where he won’t be able to hug me, but I will always come back for him. My first thought is to cry and hug my son and niece and just continue to hug them until they get tired of hugs.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her Navy carrier was not allowed to stop at any ports during the deployment. She said she and her shipmates were “stuck out at sea.”

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) broke the record for the most consecutive days at sea with 206 days.

Though the pandemic did not reach the states until after Waters left for deployment, she said serving during the pandemic was one of the toughest things she’s had to do.

“Luckily, my immediate family remained COVID-free; however, I did lose some family members,” she said.

“Being in the military and being away is rough, but being away and knowing your family is going through a trying time can really weigh on your heart and mind while also trying to stay focused on the mission. My mother and father did an awesome job caring for my son and niece and having them keep me updated encouraged and helped me stay in a positive mind frame.”

Waters had limited means of communication while on her carrier. Emailing her family daily was her only constant source of speaking to them.

She said planes were not allowed to bring family members to the ship and sailors were not allowed to fly back to the states because of the pandemic.

She and the other sailors aboard her carrier are the only ones who have not come in contact with COVID-19, she said. Being deployed in a pandemic was stressful and scary, Waters said.

“Watching our families go through this pandemic and not being able to be with them was tough and heartbreaking,” she said.

“We left prior to the pandemic and was extended on deployment due to other commands being exposed. We remained COVID-free our entire deployment, practiced safe cleaning habits and got acclimated to wearing masks as we got closer to returning. It was a different experience for us having to learn how to live in an environment that we hadn’t been exposed to.”

Waters is home now, and she said her return gives her an amazing feeling.

She advises anyone serving in the military to enjoy the time they have with their family and friends because “it’s moments like this that we live for and that we work hard for so just keep pushing.”

She thanks everyone who supported her while at sea, kept her positive and sent her care packages. She said she is grateful for her parents who not only took care of her son and 14-year-old niece, Chevon, but also her dog.

“To my son and niece, Chevon, thank you both for being such great kids, staying focused, and most of all, respectful and well-mannered,” Waters said.

“I do this for you and having your love and support is most important to me. Keep being strong kids because I feed off of your strength. I love you.”

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