Air Force families like the Smiths know that their comfortable home life could be interrupted at any time.
In many ways, we're just like any ordinary family. My husband, Derek, and I head off to work every day while our two children--Johnell, 12, and D.J., 3--go to school and day care. We spend our nights and weekends doing the usual stuff: housework, homework, laundry, running errands, watching television, and so on.
Unlike most families, though, we know that our routine could be dramatically interrupted at any time. Derek and I are both technical sergeants in the Air Force, stationed at the Barksdale base, near Shreveport, Louisiana. Right now, we have 9-to-5 jobs. Derek works in maintenance, refueling aircraft. I'm in the services division, helping with upkeep of base facilities. But with what's going on in the world right now, it's likely that one of us--possibly even both of us--could be deployed overseas within the next few months. And like all military personnel, we're ready to put the needs of our country above all else.
Deployments are the rule, not the exception, when you've spent most of your adult life in the armed services. I enlisted in the Air Force in 1992, when I was 18 years old. As a single mother of a toddler, I intended to get some job training, a college degree, and maybe a chance to see the world. I planned to serve my three years and then get out. But by the time my stint was up, I'd met Derek and fallen in love, and we had both decided to make a career out of the military.
In the eight years since we married, both Derek and I have been called to duty more times than we can recall--usually for two- or three-month stints, but sometimes longer. Derek actually left for Korea for a full year a few days after our wedding. When I was seven months pregnant with D.J., Derek was sent off to Egypt. He didn't have a fixed return date, and we didn't know whether he'd be home for the delivery. Good thing he made it back in time. Intellectually, I knew he had no control over his schedule, but I couldn't stop feeling, "I can't believe he's letting me go through this alone!" (Hey, when you're pregnant, you're allowed to behave a bit irrationally.)
I've been overseas a lot myself--to Bahrain, Egypt, and other bases in the Middle East. When it comes to dual-military couples, as we're called, the Air Force tries to keep one parent stationed at home base, and luckily, our deployments only overlapped once, for a week. That was before D.J. was born, and Johnell stayed with friends until I got home. But with the current situation in Iraq, who knows what could happen? Just in case we're both sent overseas at the same time, we've made arrangements for the boys to stay with Derek's parents, who live two hours away, in Bastrop, Louisiana.
When you've got kids at home, being away is never easy. As accustomed as Derek and I have grown to separations, it's always hard for us to say goodbye to each other--and to the children. Our biggest regret is missing so much of the boys' lives, especially little things like putting them to bed at night, helping with homework, and going to church with them. We've forfeited being together on a lot of holidays and special occasions. I've been away on Johnell's birthday more times than I want to admit.
But since September 11, deployments have gotten a lot more difficult for military families. Up until then, most were primarily for exercises--this is no longer the case. The world changed when the terrorists attacked our country. Derek and I were stationed at Moody Air Force Base, in Valdosta, Georgia, at the time, and though neither of us was called away, we saw hundreds of our fellow airmen leave for Operation Enduring Freedom--many with only a day's notice. It was frightening, watching people we'd worked with for years as they went off to a potentially dangerous situation. For the first time since Derek and I had decided to remain in the Air Force, I began to worry about the fact that our children had two parents in the armed forces.
Last spring, Derek was sent to the Middle East for three and a half months, and that separation felt a whole lot riskier than those in the past, even though I knew he wasn't in any grave danger. Still, we weren't told exactly where he was going or how long he'd be away--and that made it frightening. The logistics were easy enough: The military is very supportive of its families, and we're part of a big community of servicemen and women who help one another with things like home repairs, child care, and yard work.
But emotionally, that separation was tough. It was especially hard on Johnell, who was hearing talk of war everywhere--on the news, at school, among his friends. He's old enough now to realize what's going on in the world, and sometimes I think he understands too much. But he handled the situation with a maturity you don't see in many 12-year-olds. When you're a military kid, you grow up fast.
Still, Johnell missed Derek a lot while he was gone. We e-mailed pictures, wrote lots of letters, and made a photo calendar for crossing off the days until his return. Every week, we'd send him care packages, which included videos, candy, cookies, and jars of sweet pickles (Derek's favorite food). D.J. was too young to comprehend why Derek was gone. Every day, three or four times a day, he'd ask, "Where's Daddy?" I'd answer, "Daddy's at work. He'll be home before too long."
My husband had lost 25 pounds and shaved his head by the time he came back, but D.J. recognized him right away. For Derek's first couple of months back, our son followed him everywhere and wouldn't take a nap unless Derek was lying right by his side. Even now, when we leave D.J. at the day-care center on the Air Force base, we have to promise him that we'll be back soon.
How long will we be able to keep that promise? We don't know. Here at Barksdale, we're prepared to deploy global air power at any time. In the past few months, there have been three major deployments, and almost every week, we've watched people we know head over to the Middle East. More deployments are yet to come, and both Derek and I are ready to go. It won't be easy on our family--that's for sure--but it's our duty to our country, and we're proud to be able to serve.
Copyright © 2003 Melvina Smith. Reprinted with permission from the May 2003 issue of Parents magazine.