Soldier returns to surprise son

Valerie Rawls kisses her son, Brandon Simmons-Rawls, while hugging her sister Wanda Thompson on Friday at Howard Bishop Middle School. Rawls surprised the two at the school after returning to Gainesville following a 10-month stint in Afghanistan.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 10:46 p.m.
Valerie Rawls had not given her son a hug or cooked him dinner in almost a year.
Although Rawls said she wishes she could have spent the last year caring for her 13-year-old son, Brandon Simmons-Rawls, she couldn't.
She was busy caring for other people's sons and daughters.
But Army Chief Warrant Officer Rawls still managed to surprise Brandon and her sister, Wanda Thompson, with a visit Friday to Howard Bishop Middle School.
For the past 10 months, Rawls has been stationed in Afghanistan, responsible for making sure the troops there receive sanitary food and water.
"My job is my heart," Rawls said. "I love being in the military. The hardest part overall is just being separated from my son. That is the hardest thing about everything I've gone through."
When she was granted a two-week leave, Rawls told Ray Rummel, Brandon's math teacher, she was planning a surprise.
Rawls first contacted Rummel by e-mail to ask him to keep her posted on her son's progress, Rummel said.
After learning Rawls was in Afghanistan, Rummel said he asked his students to send Christmas cards to her and the other soldiers in her unit.
"Our students are very empathetic and compassionate," he said. "As a teacher, I didn't really have to persuade them. ... I think they were happy to do it."
Because Rawls wanted to thank Rummel's honors geometry students in person, she decided to make an unexpected visit to his class. When she walked into the room in her army uniform, both her sister, a secretary at the school, and Brandon ran to her and started to cry.
"Oh, thank you, Jesus," Thompson said as all three embraced. Brandon tucked his face into his mother's right shoulder as she held the back of his head.
"I just wanted to surprise him," Rawls said, adding that he already knows she will come home permanently in April. "I just felt this was the place to do it. ... Mr. Rummel has been such a great part of his life."
Rummel explained to the students what it meant for American soldiers to receive letters from them.
"Imagine being in a strange land, away from family," he said. "Mail call comes around, and maybe you don't have anything in the mail. How uplifting would it be to receive a letter from a stranger, an eighth-grade student from the states, who cared enough to write you?"
The troops were very thankful for the cards, Rawls said. She shared them with soldiers who didn't receive packages from their own families.
"There was no card that just said 'Merry Christmas. Happy New Year,'" she said. "All of them went into great detail, saying thank you and we appreciate what you're doing."
They meant a lot to the soldiers, who work an average of 15 hours a day, Rawls said.
"Every soldier is over there doing their part," Rawls said. "We're all in the war zone."
As of Oct. 31, a total of 18,779 enlisted, National Guard and reserve soldiers have been deployed from Florida to Afghanistan and Iraq, said Ellen Krenke, Department of Defense spokeswoman.
Rawls, who has been in the Army for 16 years, lives in Savannah, Ga. Her son has been living with her sister while she has been overseas.
Brandon said he misses his mother and worries about her safety every day.
"I miss just sitting down and talking with her, telling her things I probably wouldn't tell other people."

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