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Around The Fleet

Notes in a Lunchbox

The love of a mother

Her day starts well before the sun comes up. Kids are still asleep, she moves through a silent house getting ready. The smell of coffee is in the air, her children's clothes are already laid out, and she checks the calendar one last time to make sure everything for the week is planned out.

Daycare-check! Karate- check! Cheer practice- check! Her piercing blue eyes look back at her in a mirror as she tightens back her hair in a bun. As she sits down to polish the tips of her boots, she notices a few pieces of popcorn on the carpet left from the Disney movie marathon her family had the night before. She packs a lunch for her 9-year-old daughter and places a note in her lunchbox.

She sets her seabag by the door then quietly walks into each of her children's rooms, sits on the side of their beds, leans down and kisses them. As she leans up, she lightly rubs her hands through their hair and lingers for a moment. She says goodbye to her husband at the door with a long, yet not long enough embrace. She'll be gone for a while on business and will miss this.

At home she is mom, but at work she is a United States Navy chief petty officer.

Chief Petty Officer Shanna Todd, from Phoenix, carries the calm, stern demeanor of a Navy chief as she walks through the passageways aboard amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8). She is tough but fair, honest, and doesn't sugarcoat the truth, especially when it's hard. Most importantly, she loves her job.

"I joined for a lot of the same reasons that many Sailors join; I wanted to get money to go to school," explained Todd.

Within her first two enlistments, Todd fulfilled her obligation and was able to earn two associates degrees and a bachelor's degree. With her original goals accomplished, she found what once was a means-to-an-end now became a calling.

I decided to stay in because I love the Navy and I love what it has done for my family." - Chief Shanna Todd

"This organization has given so much to me; I really felt obligated to give back to it," said Todd. "I love what the Navy does for the country, I love my job, and I love being able to help Sailors."

Todd, a loving wife and mother of two, has been in the Navy for 11 years and has completed numerous deployments. She has traveled the world, experienced the highest of highs in her career, and helped countless of her fellow service members. But with service comes sacrifice.

"As great as deployments can be, it is time lost from your family," she said. "As a father or mother, it's extremely hard especially to see the effect that it has on the children."

Todd's first deployment away from a child, her daughter Marissa, now 9 years old, was spent in Guantanamo Bay. This brought the realization of sacrifice into full view for her.

Recalling on her experience, she said, "I was away for a year. By the time I came back, Marissa was potty trained, walking and talking in full sentences. It's a huge chunk of life that I saw I would never get back."

"You're so used to providing everything for them," Todd continued. "You're breastfeeding them, trying to get them to sleep through the night, bath time, and it almost feels like there's an emptiness or some part of you that you're not fulfilling. As a parent, that's something that's a part of you. You want to go and be successful in your career and serve your country, but you also want to be home and take care of them."

Looking down at her desk with a distant stare, she said, "You can't re-create those moments that you miss no matter how much you Skype, Facetime, or even talk on the phone."

One of her most challenging times coming home was when she finished a six-month deployment aboard USS Peleliu (LHA 5).

Almost nine months prior to leaving, she had given birth to her son Sylar, now two. During this time she made the decision to make the Navy a career. In order to do that, she would again have to make sacrifices.
Three photo collage of Chief Todd's daughter, Chief Todd with family on a flight deck, and Chief Todd with her family.

Typically, women are given 12 months after child birth before they can deploy unless they choose to go sooner.

"Staying in was the best thing for me and my family, but that also meant that I had to take serious steps to make chief," said Todd. "To do that, I knew I would have to go to a ship and deploy."

Sylar was about seven months old when I checked aboard Peleliu, and six weeks later I was gone." - Todd

Now an experienced Sailor, Todd knew how to compartmentalize her emotions so she could accomplish the mission. She crossed the quarterdeck ready to do her job for the Navy and the country, but looking back she knew she was leaving another job out on the pier.

"It was hard because he only had me for that short time," she said. "I was still breastfeeding. I was providing everything for him, and in such a short period of time I had to shut everything off and go out to sea."

Though Sylar was so young he didn't have the memories of his mother being gone, the connection between a mother and son seemed to be lost.

After months at sea and a job completed, she stepped back out onto the pier, proud of what she had done. But even as the sight of her family warmed her heart, she knew she missed so much of the first part of her son's life while gone -- his first steps, his first words, and the building of the maternal bond with her child.

Now the life she carried inside her for nine months looked at her as a stranger.

"That was really hard," she said with a tremble in her voice. "He wouldn't sit next to me. He wouldn't come up to me. He heard my voice and it was something familiar to him, but he still looked at me as if saying, 'Who is this person?'"

The constant tug and pull of trying to regain lost ground with her child went on for days, but still a gap remained between them.

It was in the most of humble of circumstances that brought them back together.

One night falling asleep, his head came to rest on her chest. In that moment, as his gentle body cradled next to hers, he heard a familiar sound.

He could hear my heartbeat. It's like he remembered it from when he was in the womb and he felt that comfort, and it was like, in that moment, he knew who I was." - Todd

In a matter of a few seconds, it was as if the past few days never existed.

"We were inseparable after that," she said. "It was a complete flip from the previous few days. Now he always wanted to sit next to me and always wanted to be around me. For him it was almost like those months that I was gone it wasn't even lost time. We picked up right where we left off."

Deployments and the sacrifices that come with them are part of her job. She has learned a lot of lessons through her experiences -- one of the biggest being it's not the time being away from the family, but what she can leave with them so they know she is always thinking of them.

She said, "I just want my family to know that, even though I'm not there physically, I am still there in some sense. One of the things I do with Marissa is I'll leave her little notes that she finds in her lunch box at school. They're just little encouraging notes that she can read throughout the day and know I'm thinking about her."

Her time in the military has taught her to be many things, especially prepared. Whether for a three-day underway or a nine-month deployment, she leaves a checklist for her husband, Mark, and mother-in-law, Margie. It details all the children's events, important dates and times and, of course, a comprehensive list of items which need to be purchased.
Three photo collage of Chief Todd hugging her daughter, Chief Todd with her family, and Chief Todd at her desk.

"I want to leave them as prepared as possible," she said. "My husband and my mother-in-law are my support network, and they are amazing when I'm gone. This is just another way that I can kind of be there to help them out even though I'm away."

The Navy chief knows how to make deployments successful for both herself and her family. As part of her job, she counsels young Sailors in preparing for deployment, setting up wills and powers of attorney. She is even the pre-deployment coordinator aboard Makin Island.

"Deployments are tough on families," said Todd. "The biggest thing I tell young Sailors that are experiencing their first deployment away from their family is to ask questions, follow the predeployment checklist that the ship hands out, and talk to shipmates that have been through this before."

"Try and leave stuff with them, whether it's notes, videos, or anything that will let them know that even though you are gone you're thinking about them," said Todd. "These are the things that bridge that gap between you and your family back home."

In a matter of a few weeks, Todd will again leave her family on the pier and set sail to do her job half a world away. Using her past experience, she knows she has prepared her family for the coming months.

"It's always hard when a parent leaves for the deployment, and it is always going to have an effect on the children," said Todd. "But I know they are proud of me, and I know I have prepared everything that I can for them in place of me when I'll be gone. They know that I'm going away to go help people who need it, and they know that I'm still with them in some sense."

Todd is going on deployment. She won't be there for Christmas as her children unwrap the presents she bought them in September. She won't be there to help with homework or pick up her children from daycare and cheer practice. She will miss many moments as her children grow and learn over the better part of a year she will be gone.

And she won't be there when her daughter Marissa opens up her lunchbox in the school cafeteria to find the note her mom placed there the day she left.

"I just want you to know how proud I am of you. You're doing great, and you're going to do amazing this year. Keep up the good work, and know I'm always thinking about you and your brother!

Love, Mom."