In February 1974, my world fell apart. My dad, who served in the United States Air Force, was deployed to serve in Southeast Asia during the final year of the Vietnam War.
Prior to my dad leaving, my parents sat down with my 3-year-old brother and me and tried to explain that my dad would be going to work, but he could not come home at night. As an inquisitive 5-year-old, I asked, “Why?” In my mind I thought: “He had always come home at night before. Why couldn’t he come home now?” They explained that Daddy’s boss was sending him to a place far away to work for a while.
My dad did not want us to travel with him to Scott’s Air Force Base to bid him farewell. Instead, he thought it would be easier for my brother and me to see him leave from the house, as he always had done.
After my dad drove away, I went into my house and climbed into a living room chair. I sat down and began my days of withdrawing from my mom, brother, and the rest of the world. I was in a complete daze. Nothing my mom said would stir me to move. I missed my daddy terribly. I thought, “What would I do without my daddy?”
My mother knew she had to keep me busy and help my mind focus on other things. Therefore, she planned a playtime with other children. These children attended our church, Calvary Baptist Church in Lebanon, Illinois. Sometimes these girls would come over and play at my house and other times I would go to their homes and play. This seemed to keep my mind busy and not dwelling on the fact that my daddy was not home.
Doing What It Takes
One day my mom had minor surgery and was sent home to stay in bed for the rest of the day. My brother and I became hungry for lunch. I remember going into my kitchen and thinking, “What can I make to feed my mom, brother, and me?” The only thing I knew how to make was a bologna sandwich. So I pulled out the bread and placed a piece of bologna between the slices. I placed my mom’s sandwich on a plate and took it to her room. My brother didn't like the bread, so I just gave him a piece of bologna. Then I made myself a sandwich and ate.
I was very proud of myself. My mother, in all of her pain, praised me for the great job that I had done. But what would I do for supper? Bologna again? Thankfully, a lady from our church called my mom at a specific time each night to check on us. That night she discovered what had occurred and had dinner sent over to us. I think my mom and brother were thankful to have a home-cooked meal not prepared by a 5-year-old. What a relief for me!
I was eager to learn how to ride a bicycle — something that daddies always help their little girls learn to do. A close family friend, Mr. Grunden, found a bicycle for me and put on the training wheels. After a time of practicing my balance, he took off the training wheels, and I was ready to ride.
Later, I began kindergarten. But my dad was not there to see me ride the school bus for the first time and hear about my first day at school.
Trying to Stay Connected
My mom always kept my dad’s picture in sight, and we talked about my dad. I would often kiss my daddy’s picture. We were unable to receive a phone call from him and could not call him. Therefore, we made an audio cassette for him each week.
I remember each Sunday was the big day to “talk to Daddy.” We would sit on mom’s bed and hover around the small microphone of the tape recorder. I become a Chatty Cathy! I would sing all the songs that I had learned at church and tell him the Bible stories. I would tell him “I love you” a million times and give lots of kisses into the microphone. In addition, I drew pictures for my daddy and we mailed the package.
I looked forward to receiving a package from my dad. He would include an audio cassette of him talking to us. We could play the tape over and over again.
My grandparents gave my brother and me more attention during this time. Every week, they would call from Pennsylvania and South Carolina. My granddaddy came to visit us at Thanksgiving that year, and my grandmother came to spend Christmas with us. The extra time and attention really helped me feel loved and accepted. Also, I craved attention from a man. My granddaddy was there to give a lot of hugs and helped fill some of the void.
My dad returned after one year overseas. He was afraid that we wouldn't remember him. However, when my dad walked off the plane, I ran right into his arms and game him a huge hug. My dad had physically changed. This was hard for me to understand. During the time away, my dad grew a moustache. I was not sure how that happened! I told my dad that I wanted him to take it off. He just laughed and told me that he would not.
My dad brought us lots of gifts from Southeast Asia. In addition, he showed us pictures of some of the things he and his friends would go see during their “vacations.” This helped me visualize a different part of the world. However, he never talked about the war, even as I grew older. Each time I asked, his expression would change and a cold, empty look flooded his eyes.
Times of Change
My mom had to sell the house before my dad returned because we were moving to California. Our time at Atwater Air Force Base was only for six months. Shortly afterward, we had to move to Florida.
My dad had to go on many Temporary Duties (TDYs) for up to six months. I remember, as a young teenager, expressing to my mom that the Air Force was always taking my dad away.
Every four years our family moved. This meant I had to begin a new school, move into a new house, meet new friends, and find a new church home. Although this life was difficult for our family and many times I resented the Air Force for taking my dad away, I am thankful I am a military kid.
Because of my experience, God molded me into a person that quickly adapts to new situations. Because it sometimes took awhile to develop new friendships, our family grew closer together. God used our moves to show me different ethnic groups and how to show love to all people.
The soldier deployed is not the only one who makes an enormous sacrifice. His family that is left behind sacrifices much, as well. The time away can never be regained. Because of what the soldier has experienced and seen during times of conflict, he is never the same.
In my calling to ministry, each church I've served has been in a city with military installations. Hopefully, my experiences will help me become a better minister to preschool military families. As I minister to these children, my heart still remembers the 5-year-old girl that missed her daddy, and my heart breaks for them.
How Can Parents Help Children with Their Feelings?
-Pray for the deployed parent, our country, and our President.
-Turn off the television. Children’s fears increase as they see pictures and hear talk about the war and weapons. Children will search for their parents and wonder if they are being hurt.
-Maintain a routine. Children need structure and routines to assist with their sense of security.
-Stay active in Sunday School and church. Your community of faith will be a source of encouragement and prayer support for you and your child.
-Plan activities with other children from your child’s day care, school, or church.
-Keep pictures of the deployed parent displayed. It might be helpful to place a picture of the parent in the child’s bedroom.Our preschool ministry had an early Father’s Day for our soldiers. Each soldier had his picture taken with his preschool child. Then we transferred that picture onto a pillowcase. The children are using these pillowcases when then need a hug from their daddies.
-Send daily or weekly letters to the deployed parent. Invest in an instant camera and take pictures of your child while he is involved in daily routines or special occasions. If a newborn was having difficulty sleeping before your spouse was deployed and now is sleeping through the night, take a picture of your child sleeping. Older preschoolers and children also can use the instant camera to take pictures of the remaining parent or things that are important to them.
-Answer only the questions your child asks you. Often parents give more information than a child needs. If your child desires to know more, he will ask.
-Develop or maintain a daily family worship time.