CULLMAN, Ala. – “This all seems so surreal,” Jessica Henderson said Monday morning as she was moments away from seeing her daughter Allie Heaton depart for Army boot camp. Heaton, a 2021 graduate of Cullman High School, was recently featured in The Tribune’s Books to Battalions series and we were invited to join as the family gathered for her big send off.
Heaton was joined by her parents, John Heaton and Henderson, her grandparents, siblings and extended family. Heaton’s close-knit family gathered at the Golden Corral early Monday morning for a last breakfast together…for a while anyway. A mixture of nervousness and excitement could be detected throughout the room, but it paled in comparison to the level of pride.
The family made their way to the recruiter’s office, knowing that within a half an hour, they would see the shuttle pull away with their beloved Allie, and they said their emotional goodbyes. Even her adorable Chihuahua Camo was there proudly wearing his Army harness.
After a quick briefing by Heaton’s recruiter, the family formed a circle, held hands and bowed their heads. Family patriarch Junior Heaton delivered a beautiful prayer as he choked back tears.
After nine weeks of basic training at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina, Heaton will head to Ft. Leonard Wood for additional training and then Ft. Benning for Jump School. She hopes to become a Combat Medic. She said of her decision, “I’ve really trusted God to help me make this decision. At first, there was a lot of praying and doubting because this is a huge commitment, but I knew I was ready to make it. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Henderson explained that her daughter always had an interest in the military and, as a student at Cullman Middle School, became determined to serve. Heaton’s aunt Holly Ball jokes, “We tried to talk her out of it. We tried begging, bribery and everything we could do.”
When Heaton’s mom or Aunt Holly attempted to put into words how proud they are, their eyes would swell with tears. They didn’t have to verbalize how they felt. It simply wasn’t necessary.
Her dad John said that the family had many military veterans and added, “We are so proud of her. I am as proud as I can be. I have cried all day.” Her sister Whitney added, “She hasn’t flinched on us one time. I posted on Facebook this morning about how she worked so hard for what she’s about to walk into, but she’s not walking. She’s running full force and she’s not slowing down.”
As the final moments were upon the family, the tears began to fall more steadily, and the embraces were more prolonged. Saying goodbye is always hard but for Heaton, but the support system she is blessed to have will certainly be felt no matter how far away she will be. The green lights shining outside their homes will always show Allie just how much she is loved, how proud they are and where her home will always be.
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