Staying Together While Oceans Apart

Deployment is hard.  And hard is an understatement.

I know this.  I understood this as a 21-year-old girl out on a date with some Navy guy and telling him why I don’t date guys in the military.  Silly me, I fell head over heels in love with him.
Photo by: Cait Heinz Photography
Eight years and a baby later, I learned just how wrong I was.  Sure, deployment is hard.  But when you add in a 14-month-old who is clinging to his Daddy’s neck and crying because he doesn’t understand why he has to say goodbye, it’s heartbreaking.

My husband was scared.  This deployment was unlike anything either of us had ever experienced.  Would our son understand?  How would he cope?  And most of all, would our son remember him after six months apart?

I didn’t have the answers.  But one thing I told my husband before he left was to not forget to record videos with United Through Reading (UTR)

While this was our first deployment as a family of three, as they say, it wasn’t our first rodeo.  We’d already been through three deployments as a couple.  When my husband deployed with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2012, we had a great UTR Coordinator.

Our UTR Coordinator, Crystal, was at every Ike FRG Meeting talking about UTR and how great it was for the sailors, families, and morale in general.  I didn’t have children yet, but I was impressed by the program.

So impressed, that four years later, I still remembered exactly what UTR was and I could rattle off the benefits to my husband and impress upon him how important his participation was.

The first month was hard.  My son asked for his Daddy every day and my heart broke a little more every time I had to remind him just how far we had to go before we saw Daddy again.

Then in late June, a package arrived addressed to our son in my husband’s handwriting.  “Looks like someone got a package from Daddy!”  My toddler started jumping up and down and yelling “Daddy!” over and over. 

I pulled out the UTR video and book.  Our son loves books, and reading with Daddy has always been one of his favorite things to do.

Whenever the house was a little too quiet, I could always find the two of them snuggled in a rocking chair, reading a book.  Even almost a year later, I can still remember exactly how I found them the night before he deployed, reading My Sailor Dad.

The first time we watched the UTR video, my son cried.  I did too, but I tried to hide my tears.  I had just entered my second trimester, so this was a harder feat than you can imagine!

My son, who was just shy of 18 months, was overwhelmed with emotion.  Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss toddlers and think that since they don’t understand what deployment is, they don’t have the same feelings adults do.

But I realized right then and there just how much my son was feeling this deployment and missing his daddy.  It completely changed the way I addressed Daddy being gone with him.

It took a few tries, but soon the UTR video and book were my son’s most prized possession.  Every day when we got home, he requested to see Daddy.  And whenever Daddy’s face lit up the screen, my son would laugh and jump and yell, “Hi Daddy!”  I think to him, the UTR video was the next best thing to having Daddy there.

He also loved to follow along with the books, or at least as much as a one-year-old can follow along!

And it wasn’t just books my son could follow along to. I mentioned to my husband that our son was learning his ABC’s.  So my husband took it upon himself to make ABC flashcards that he could read to our son in the videos.

My husband was so excited when he came home and our son could perfectly recite his ABC’s.  He gave him great pride that even though he was half a world away, he could play a part in our son’s learning process.

And I used the videos to my benefit too.  When I was pregnant with our son, my husband would talk to my belly every day in the hope that our son would be born knowing his voice.  Since he wasn’t able to physically be there, I would sit there and watch the UTR videos so our daughter could “hear” her Daddy.

United Through Reading brought a lot of comfort to my family during the six months my husband was deployed.

My husband could take comfort in the fact that he was doing everything in his power to make sure our son would remember him.

My son knew if he was having a hard time missing Daddy, he had the videos at home to comfort him.  He would frequently bring me the UTR videos and ask to see his Daddy and would just revel in hearing his Dad’s voice and seeing his face.

And I took comfort in the fact that the videos were helping keep our family close during a challenging deployment.

I cannot recommend United Through Reading enough to other families.  Take advantage of UTR and all it has to offer.  This is, without a doubt, the best program to keep military families connected over the long months and many miles.  The UTR videos were a lifesaver for my son’s first time having Daddy deployed, and I know this a program we will continue to participate in in the future.

As for my son, he didn’t forget his Daddy, not by a long shot.  On Homecoming Day, it was like they had never been apart.

Jessica Appelberg is a military wife and stay-at-home mom to two beautiful kids.  She is the co-founder of Hampton Roads Moms blog. During her free time, she enjoys exploring Virginia, spending time with her family, and volunteering with the Family Readiness Group for her husband’s command. Read Jessica’s letter to her military children here

*Appelberg family photo by Cait Heinz Photography