On Feb. 10, DeJsha Tatum turned 15. Her mother wasn’t there.
Her mom, Maj. Laura Byrd, was half a world away, serving her first deployment in the Middle East as an analyst for Sumter-based Third Army/ARCENT.
Byrd, a Dillon native, has been a single mom since Tatum was 4 years old. The two had never been apart for more than a month or two during Byrd’s 17-year career, until she was deployed to Kuwait in August.
“My mom leaving was a tragedy for me,” Tatum said. “She missed Christmas and my birthday. She has been gone for so long and I just felt so empty.”
On Tuesday, that emptiness was filled to overflowing during an emotional surprise mother-daughter reunion in Sumter.
During a mock forum with Third Army soldiers at Tatum’s Sumter Christian School (ostensibly observing the Month of the Military Child), Byrd appeared unexpectedly from a small room in the sanctuary to the amazement of Tatum and the delight of her classmates.
“You made me cry in front of my friends!” Tatum exclaimed, laughing through tears, as soldiers, students and school officials gave the two a standing ovation. “I’m going to hold this against you when I get older!”
After growing up in Dillon, Byrd got an ROTC scholarship to attend Morris College, an historically black liberal arts college in Sumter. There, she excelled, becoming the school’s first female commander of cadets. After graduation, she joined the Army.
“I fell in love with the Army when I was in 10th grade,” she said.
Tatum was born two years after her mom joined the Army, and for the last 15 years they have lived in five different locations. Prior to coming to Third Army, based at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, she had been at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
“Coming back to Sumter was like coming full circle,” said Byrd, who has family in Dillon and Columbia.
Byrd and Tatum seem as much sisters as friends. They are both outgoing and gregarious and love to share a joke, Byrd said before the surprise appearance. And it was that missed birthday in February that made Byrd want to do something special for her daughter.
“I left when she was 14, and now she’s 15,” Byrd said. “I had a couple mommy moments during that time. She has a joking mentality, so I decided to surprise her.”
Tatum had told her mom – who’s deployment had been unexpectedly stretched to eight months from a planned six months — that she couldn’t stand it if she didn’t come home by Byrd’s birthday on April 29. She planned to roll both their birthdays into one celebration.
In a telephone call early Tuesday, Byrd assured her daughter she would be home in time for the party.
During the reunion, there were as many tears in the audience of students and teachers as there was between mother and daughter.
“That was soooo sweet we started crying,” said Bailey Jackson, 15, who was sitting on the front row with Tatum.
Byrd traveled 24 hours straight from Kuwait and, visibly weary from the trip, drove directly to the school from Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
When asked if she missed getting hugs and congratulations from friends and family at the airport, she said, “No. I’m getting my welcome right now.”
School principal Ron Davis gave Tatum permission to go straight home from the midday event with her mother. Tatum was a little taken aback by the offer.
“Oh my goodness,” she said. “She has to see my (messy) room?”