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.