Christmas came early for one military family Thursday night.
The American Red Cross orchestrated a surprise reunion between a service member stationed overseas and her stateside family at the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. On the field, Air Force Falcons beat the Baylor University Bears 30 to 15. But all eyes were on the heartfelt reunion just before halftime between Navy Seaman’s Apprentice Stephanie Terrazas and her family.
“Surprising my family and coming home for Christmas is the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Stephanie, who is currently stationed aboard the forward-deployed USS New Orleans LPD18 based in Sasebo, Japan.
The Red Cross, in conjunction with ESPN and American Airlines, selected the service member and orchestrated the logistics to make the reunion happen. “This event is one of the highlights of the year for our Service to the Armed Forces program, which supports service members, their families and veterans all over the world,” said Susan Malandrino, communications lead for the American Red Cross.
“The Red Cross is dedicated to helping military families during the happiest of times, the most challenging circumstances, and all the moments in between. We were proud to work with our partners to provide this surprise for a special military family right before the holidays,” she said.
Family in Texas
Jennifer Terrazas, of Mesquite, Texas, says that when her little sister left for Japan part of her heart left too. “I’m so proud of her and her commitment,” she said. Jennifer hasn’t seen Stephanie in more than a year. “We’ve always been a team and part of my heart has been missing since Stephanie’s been gone,” said Jennifer.
Stephanie’s mother, Teresa Navarrete, and her younger brothers and sister, Adam, age 13, Jaylene, age 12, and Jose Gonzales, age 10, all say they miss her terribly. The family said that Stephanie’s always been grateful and appreciative of every opportunity she’s been given. “She is the kind of person to make the best of every situation and works hard,” Jennifer said.
“I know she’s doing important things in the Navy, but it is hard. This is the longest we’ve ever been apart,” Jennifer said. “I’m expecting my first baby in January and Stephanie has missed so many of these special family moments.”
Service Means Giving Back
Stephanie says that joining the Navy was always her dream. Since joining the Navy, she has served as an active USO volunteer and a Red Cross blood donor. “I find that giving back makes me feel good,” she said. In addition to her volunteer work, she also teaches fitness classes and plans workouts for her fellow sailors aboard the ship. “Staying busy has been key to transitioning to my new life overseas away from my family,” she said.
Stephanie is the first person in her family to join the military. “I want to be a model for my brothers and sisters. I know that I’m representing my family and want to do my best. Being a Deck Seamen is one of the hardest jobs but at the end of the day the most rewarding. I help get the ship underway and assist with small boat operations, such as driving the ship and standing lookout in case of a man overboard,” she said.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Vogtman, who manages the sailors aboard USS New Orleans says Stephanie’s willingness to help others is noticed by the entire crew. “Her dedication to her ship and her shipmates makes her a stand-out sailor. She lives and breathes the Navy's core values of honor, courage and commitment,” he said, noting that being a sailor in the Navy is hard work, especially in Japan where the operational tempo is high, and the ship is underway the majority of the time.
“We are so proud to see SA Terrazas get recognized in this way. She is willing to help with the most difficult jobs that many of her peers will tend to shy away from. It doesn't matter how dirty the job or difficult the task if it needs to get done to support the ship, the mission, or her shipmates she is on it no questions asked. She is a true team player with a selfless drive to succeed — those qualities make a great sailor,” Vogtman said.
Game Time Reunion
At the game, the family settled in to watch football and wait for their special onscreen message. All the while, event organizers kept Stephanie hidden. Just before halftime, the family was escorted down to the field to watch a big screen message from Stephanie whom they thought was still in Japan.
As they were watching the video play, Stephanie snuck onto the field. Suddenly, smiles turned to tears of joy when they saw each other. The made-for-TV moment came complete with Stephanie and Jennifer, her little brothers and sister running to embrace. On the field with the cameras rolling and the crowd watching, Teresa said that she was in shock. “I can’t believe this happened. I’m so happy,” she said.
Stephanie said she’s looking forward to spending the holidays at home and plans as much quality time as possible with her family. “I’m so grateful to the Red Cross and will cherish every moment spent with my family. They are the most important thing in the world to me,” she said.