As Sgt. Lacey Poltoratskiy walked near her daughter down a Midway Middle School hallway and into a small community room, it took every ounce of energy not to scoop her up and hold her tight.

She was so close. After all, she hadn’t hugged 12-year-old JaiceyBelle Hunter in nine months. She had to keep calm and maintain her composure as the school’s Panther mascot long enough to build suspense.

Long enough for the teacher to make a small speech.

And long enough for her daughter to believe the mascot and surrounding cheerleaders were there to celebrate her classmates’ effort in an ongoing food drive.

The second she took the giant Panther head off though, that anxiety dissipated and her daughter’s giant grin changed everything.

“This is my mother, and she’s here,” JaiceyBelle said. “And now you’ve seen me cry like a small, little child.”

The reaction matched that of her younger brother, Daxton Hunter, a couple of hours earlier, when Poltoratskiy surprised her 5-year-old son at 9 a.m. Monday morning at Hewitt Elementary School as a “surprise guest speaker.” Daxton yelled “Mommy” the minute she walked through the door.

Poltoratskiy just finished a tour in Kuwait, her first deployment as part of the United States Army, and was expected to be home a little closer to Thanksgiving, she said. She returned Sunday to Killeen, and planned throughout the last week ways to tell her children she was coming home early, she said. Reaching out to the principals seemed to be the best option, and she struggled to keep the surprise a secret for the 24 hours prior, she said.

“It’s just a blessing for them to be able to spend that quality family time with each other, so I think it’s perfect timing as our holiday season begins,” Hewitt Elementary Principal Christy Watley said. “This is just my second year as a principal, and I have not experienced this, even as an assistant principal. This is very heartwarming and a little emotional for me because I know how much he missed his mom.”

While Poltoratskiy was overseas, the children moved up from Killeen to stay with their grandmother, she said. Having the additional local support from friends, teachers and family made it easier for her to deploy, though she knows not all families have the same help available, Poltoratskiy said. Poltoratskiy attended Hewitt Elementary as a child, and teachers were willing to send her updates during their time apart, she said.

“Daxton’s teacher, she would send me videos and pictures and updates, so I got to keep up with the kids,” she said. “She would film him reading, because he learned to read while I was gone, so I still got to be part of that.”

She would chat with her children over FaceTime in the mornings, and wave goodbye before they started school each day. But she didn’t get to be there when Daxton learned how to ride a bike without training wheels, and she supported JaiceyBelle from afar with some “Amazon therapy” by buying her little artist some much-needed markers online, she said.

It wasn’t the same as having mom there to poke and annoy in the flesh, JaiceyBelle joked.

About a month ago, JaiceyBelle began counting down the days until her mother’s return, letting each of her teachers know on a regular basis, JaiceyBelle said.

“It was tough the last few weeks. The kids were missing me, and I was missing them,” Poltoratskiy said as she hugged her daughter. “I think I was more nervous about losing it, crying — our ugly cries, right?”

“Yes, our ugly, little family cries,” JaiceyBelle responded.

JaiceyBelle said as she was walking down the hall, she initially thought her class was dropping off donated canned food for someone sponsoring the food drive. But she became a little anxious when the teacher asked her and another student to pose near the mascot for a photo. And she grew more nervous when the mascot kept patting her shoulder and messing with her hair, she said.

Once she realized who was inside the fuzzy character, she was only focused on two things — eating lunch with her mother and giving her mom the same gift she received before Polteratskiy left, she said.

“Whenever she left, we went to Build-A-Bear workshop, and me and my brother both got one from her,” JaiceyBelle said. “I got a pink leopard.”

“And I got a blue dinosaur,” Daxton interjected.

“I want to go there, with me and my brother, to make one for her,” she continued. “That’s what I want to do.”

The family will celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives, sharing stories and looking through photos during the next couple of weeks, Poltoratskiy said. Then, during the Christmas break, they’ll head back to Killeen, where they’ll get to start their lives in a new home, she said.

“Mommy, you’re going to sleep in the living room with me, because I’m going to sleep in the big chair,” Daxton interjected again.

“Oh, OK. We’ll all sleep together and have a slumber party?” Poltoratskiy asked. “We’ll just put our lives back together, now that everybody’s home.”

“It’ll be a chair slumber party. Just in one big chair,” JaiceyBelle chimed in.

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