Sidney Pompa, 17

Army Staff Sgt. Aracely Gonzalez-O'Malley, 31

Died Oct. 21, 2010

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Sidney Pompa stood at the front of the V formation, her head down and her feet spread shoulder-width apart. She wore a gold ribbon in her hair, and on her matching cheerleading uniform was the name of her Hawaii high school, Leilehua. Behind the Las Vegas stage, where she and six teammates waited in silence for the most important 73 seconds of their young careers, a towering wall of lights illustrated the stakes: “NATIONALS.”

“Aloha!” she shouted, whipping her head back to signal the start of their performance.

Sidney, 17, didn’t always want to cheer. She started at age 8 because her mom, Aracely Gonzalez-O’Malley, insisted on it. Serving in the Army, Gonzalez-O’Malley frequently had to move her family. Cheerleading had helped her make friends growing up, and she thought it would do the same for her daughter. So, Sidney cheered.

Then came Oct. 21, 2010, four months into her mother’s deployment to Afghanistan, where she was serving alongside Sidney’s stepfather. The teen was visiting her paternal grandparents in California when her dad called.

“I have to tell you something,” he said. “It’s about your mom.”

Gonzalez-O’Malley, a staff sergeant, had died of a brain aneurysm at 31. Sidney was 13, and her brother, Riley, was 10. Her mom had given birth to a third child, Sean, just nine months earlier.

“YAY Sidney, you made the cheer squad,” her mother wrote in her last email. “I am so proud of you!!!!!!!”

Cheerleading suddenly meant something different to Sidney. It was an unexpected gift that held within its wrapping hundreds of memories. She began to wear on her uniform a Gold Star pin given to her by the Army. It reminded Sidney of how proud her mother was of her commitment. She rubbed its face with her thumb so often that the metal lost its shine.

Gonzalez-O’Malley had coached Sidney that first season years earlier, teaching her just the right rhythm to “Who rocks the house? The Bulldogs rock the house.” They shared hours in front of living room TVs — daughter on the floor in a split and mother on the couch above, pressing down on Sidney’s shoulders to improve her flexibility. And then there was that final e-mail from Gonzalez-O’Malley, sent three weeks before her artery failed. She had just learned the results of Sidney’s middle-school tryout.

“YAY Sidney, you made the cheer squad,” she wrote. “I am so proud of you!!!!!!!”

Left and right: Sidney Pompa with her mom, Aracely Gonzalez-O’Malley. Sidney's mom urged her to take up cheerleading. (Family photos)

Sidney understood her mother wouldn’t be there on the day of her graduation or the morning of her wedding, as she had so long imagined. But cheerleading always conjured her presence. Each time Sidney practiced or performed, she could hear Gonzalez-O’Malley’s voice: Arms stiff. Don’t bend your wrists. Enthusiasm. Yell from your diaphragm. Loud but not squeaky loud. Keep smiling.

In Las Vegas, Sidney and her teammates woke at 5 the morning of the competition. They had qualified for the JAMZ cheerleading national championships and traveled 2,800 miles to compete. Using a makeup brush her mother had bought her three months before deploying, Sidney carefully detailed each girl’s face.

Minutes before the performance, she saw her mom’s sister, who had come from Arizona to watch. They hugged. “I know Mom’s watching, too,” Sidney said. Soon after, she took the stage and yelled “Aloha!” and whipped her head back.

Her arms remained stiff on the back handspring. Her shouts resounded. She kept smiling.

The team came off the stage, and Sidney walked to her backpack. She opened the front zipper, searching for bags of candy she had made for her teammates. Then she saw the Gold Star pin. Sidney picked it up and, not long before learning they had won first place, rubbed her thumb over its face.

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.