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Health and Fitness

Balance, Bonding and Expectations

One mother's advice for military parents

Finally, the day had come! The end of the seven month deployment was here! I was so anxious to finally pull in to see my husband and kids on the pier. I had seen all of the sappy commercials and television shows about homecomings and spent 210 days envisioning ours.

This was my first deployment and I couldn't wait to reunite with my family for that picture perfect moment.

I raced off the brow, searching the crowd for my family. Then I heard my son's sweet little voice screaming "MOM!" as he ran up to me.

He jumped in my arms and we squeezed each other tight just as I had pictured! After a few moments I put him down to make my way to my husband and my one-year-old daughter. I approached her and slowly took her from her father's arms and into mine. I looked into her eyes waiting to hear her say "mama" and embrace me just as her brother had. I got nothing. No response, just a blank stare. Just then a Photographer's Mate walked up to take photos of our reunion. I cracked. All of the tears I had held in during deployment opened up like a flooded dam.

The photo snapped in that moment has been used in so many publications. It is printed in huge poster size at some Naval Facilities. It is used on the coins in Iraq. Everybody that sees it says the same thing, what a beautiful reunion.
Three photo spread showing sailor with child, family photo, and two shadows on pavement.

Photo spread of Chief Mass Communication Specialist Leah Stiles and her family Husband Yeoman 1st Class Marlando Stiles; son Alexzander, 17; and daughters Ayanna, 13; and Alyia, 9.

Nobody distinguishes that those are not the tears of a joyous reunion, but of a broken hearted mother whose child doesn't recognize her. Nobody prepared me for this. It never came up in conversations on the mess decks. This is not what I expected.

As parents in the military we all remember that moment when we look down at that precious newborn face and wonder if and when we will have to leave them. A day, a week, a year, any amount of time seems like too much. And then there are the comments made by people who simply don't understand. "If you were a real parent, you wouldn't leave your child," or "I don't know how you can just leave. I could NEVER do that to my child." It starts to take a toll. So first and foremost you must remember that our children ARE the reason we make such sacrifices.

The Navy offers resources to help service members and their families cope with deployments. And I encourage my Sailors to take full advantage of counseling and financial services if they are needed. But I also try to be real with my Sailors by giving them advice that I've gathered over the years that will keep them remain connected to their loved ones while deployed.
A photo layout of MCC Stile's family.

Photo spread of Chief Mass Communication Specialist Leah Stiles and her family Husband Yeoman 1st Class Marlando Stiles; son Alexzander, 17; and daughters Ayanna, 13; and Alyia, 9.

Being a dual military family makes this even trickier. This is my top five list my family uses to maintain our bond with our children while we are away. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but it's a great start.

1. Leave a jar of candy (M&Ms) and allow them to remove one piece each day you are away. This helps them physically see the time progressing. (TIP: Always include a few "in case" extras. This is the Navy after all.)

2. Prepack Birthday Boxes. This includes Hats, balloons, table cloths, napkins, etc. I make one for them, and take one with me. When one of us has a birthday, we break out both boxes and either Skype together, or take a photo and send it depending on connectivity at the time. (TIP: Shop at the dollar store. Also, Google "Canned Cakes," they are delicious and can stay fresh for a year!)

3. Similar to the United Through Reading programs, I buy a book and pre-record me reading to them. I leave them the book and the video to read along to. (TIP: For older children and teens, start a new reading series together. This gives you a connection and something to discuss when you talk or email.)

4. Track a map. Post a map on the wall and let them place stickers or pins at each of your ports. Then, each of you look up three facts about the area to share with each other. (TIP: OPSEC, OPSEC, OPSEC! Don't discuss port visits until AFTER arriving.)

5. Leave love. Hide notes, Hershey kisses, stuffed animals, etc. Know and expect they will have bad days. Rather than feeling helpless when hearing about the bad days, you can direct them to the hiding spot to get the little surprise. (TIP: It helps when you spray these gifts with your perfume or cologne.)

Being a military parent does NOT mean that we are disengaged or distant. In fact, I feel like I have an extremely close bond with my children. Does it take a little more effort than our civilian counterparts? Yep. But the effort is so worth it! Not every moment will be picture perfect, but they can be more like what you picture.
United Through Reading graphic

United Through Reading graphic