McConnell families endure as wars go on

While his wife was deployed from McConnell Air Force Base to Iraq, the husband was so busy looking after their three young daughters that he forgot it was Super Bowl Sunday.

Another married couple — both active-duty airmen at McConnell who have combined for seven deployments — exchange family duty lists so everything is covered when one is away.

Such is life for families at McConnell, which has one of the highest deployment rates among the nation's air bases because its KC-135 tankers provide the core aerial refueling support around the world.

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, McConnell's deployments in recent years have increased. One returning airman recently completed his 11th deployment.

Ninety-five percent of the 2,950 active airmen at McConnell have been deployed at least once.

Put that with the fact that 60 percent of McConnell's active airmen are married. Add in the single parents and it's not surprising McConnell families have nearly 1,800 children 12 years and younger.

Stress points abound.

"The family members can be the forgotten ones," said Heather, wife of a McConnell airman in Iraq. "They're making sacrifices, not just the one deployed."

Coping with stress

The Eagle recently talked to some McConnell families. For safety reasons, the last names of wives with deployed husbands were omitted.

It's telling that McConnell's Airman and Family Readiness Center offers a free class monthly to help guide divorcing parents with children.

Helping families cope with stress is a big part of the work at the center, which served nearly 4,000 airmen and their family members during a recent one-year stretch.

The center offers a myriad of resources in dealing with life issues to all of the base's airmen and their families. But a big part of the center's work includes services provided only to spouses and children of deployed airmen.

"We try to help them stay connected to their loved ones," said Tech. Sgt. Beth Roberts, who runs the center's deployment program.

Even to the point of offering "hero dolls" — or mommy and daddy dolls, as the children often call them. Roberts takes a full-length picture of the deployed airmen in uniform, which volunteers use to make into stuffed dolls for the children.

There's also the option of having pictures on a pillowcase, which both the airmen and family can use during a deployment.

Families get creative. Take the message on Heather's pillow case below the picture of she and her husband, Jeff:

"1 4 3"

"That's for the number of letters in the words 'I love you,' " explained Emily, Heather and Jeff's 13-year-old daughter.

"Sweet Dreams" is under the pillow-case picture that Emily and her 8-year-old brother, Ryan, had taken with their dad.

Handling deployment

Roberts does a monthly newsletter, "Hearts Apart," and e-mails it to families to help keep them aware of services — including free oil changes — and opportunities to interact with other families.

There are monthly outings for families to go out to eat, then do a fun event together. Last month, about 40 parents and children had pizza and went roller skating.

And then there's an "Elmo" DVD, which the program uses to help children of deployed parents understand what's happening. In this case, Elmo's dad goes off on a business trip, then returns.

"These kids can totally relate to that," Roberts said. "It's tough on them."

Twice a month, the program offers free child care. Amy was quick to jump on that service while her husband, Chad, was on a recent four-month deployment to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. They have two boys, Cole, 5, and Cannon, 1.

"It's not about going out and being with your girlfriends," said Amy, whose husband left last week to attend a 40-day noncommissioned officer's school in Colorado. "It's about getting your house cleaned, doing your grocery shopping."

How long a family has been at McConnell and children's ages all factor into how well those at home handle a deployment.

"The biggest issue is support — emotional and sometimes physically," Amy said

She's still not sure how she would have gotten her 50-pound Christmas tree out of the attic if an airman from her husband's squadron hadn't done it.

"He even put the angel on top of the tree," she said.

Getting support

Spouses in squadrons volunteer to make calls to families with a deployed spouse.

Kim, who is at home with three children 4 and younger while her husband, Chris, is deployed to Southeast Asia, appreciates those calls.

"Since they make those calls," she said, "I would feel comfortable calling them."

Chris, a pilot who has been stationed at McConnell for 1 1/2 years, is on his fifth deployment in the last three years.

"The biggest thing for me is being the sole parent 24/7," Kim said. "It's not the end of the world, but it's a lot of work."

Kim said she has also reached beyond the base to find support, including Bible studies at her church. She also has had other wives of deployed husbands and their children over for dinner.

"We're in the same boat," Kim said. "I have to fix food anyway, so it's more fun if other people are here."

Indeed, the center's Roberts said such resiliency is common for many of those with deployed spouses.

"There are those people that are OK being disconnected, that are very self-sufficient and don't need a lot of help," she said. "They just keep rolling.

"But there are lots of families that like to participate, know that they are loved and come hang out with us."

Planning is key

For those holding down the fort at home, having a plan is the key.

That's how it is for Heather and Jeff. Heather is also on active duty as an airman, a master sergeant who is an instructor of military education at McConnell.

To go with her husband's five deployments, she has been deployed twice.

"Family separation is difficult," said Heather, who married Jeff 14 years ago shortly after they met at their first duty station. "We're fortunate to have a very strong marriage. We support each other in our careers.

"The hardest thing for us now is the kids. They're at an age that they feel the impact of either one of us being gone."

"It's a challenge," Emily added as she looked up from doing her homework.

Heather smiled and said, "Fortunately, we've never been deployed at the same time."

She said they communicate as much as possible, including using Skype — an Internet service that allows for both an audio and video connection — two to three times a week.

Although they've had multiple deployments, Heather agreed with others that the process doesn't get easier with each one.

"The separation part never gets easier," she said. "But you do learn from each one — what works and doesn't work."

For what works with them, she said, "We have lists. It is a down-and-dirty of what the other spouse does."

Jeff handles the maintenance of the house. So before he left a few weeks ago to serve in security forces in Baghdad, he walked around the house to explain what needed to be done with the sprinkler system, what air conditioning and furnace filters needed to be changed when and so on.

Heather jotted it all down in a notebook.

Before her last deployment, in 2006, Jeff took notes on what all he needed to know about her role as the family's record keeper:

Birthdays, due dates of bills, school information and so on.

"We're equally and competently trained in what the other does," Heather said.

What doesn't work during a deployment, she said, is shutting down.

"You can't let the stressers of deployment become your life and forget that there are still people around you that support you," Heather said.

While work and school fill the time during the week, Heather said, "Weekends are times we sometimes get sad. So we find things to do — volunteer work, activities at the base — as a family."

Sometimes spouses are so busy with home duties, they forget what day it is.

So it was for Greg Campbell, who had met his wife, Chyrece, when they were both in Iraq in 2004. He was Army, she was Air Force.

A key reason he left the Army after they were married and had children was so they could avoid double deployments. One deployment at a time was tough enough.

When Chyrece, who has been a public affairs officer at McConnell since 2007, was deployed in 2008 to Iraq, Greg was left at home with their three young daughters — Kennedy, Madison and Reagan.

"It was exactly how you could imagine it would go," said Campbell, who was then working full-time for Cox Communications.

When it came time for the Super Bowl in 2009, Chyrece called her husband so they could enjoy the game together over the phone.

"I had no clue it was going on," he said.

Greg and his daughters, who were 7, 2 and nine months at the time, were busy watching a "Strawberry Shortcake" video.

The video won out over the Super Bowl.

"Yep, missed the Super Bowl," Greg said. "I was totally scatter-brained."

Transition on return

But even with the best-laid plans and intentions, the return of a deployed spouse can create its own stress points — especially for those families with children.

"It's not — Bam! —it's a homecoming and everything is back to normal," Roberts said. "Of course, the kids are ecstatic to see mom or dad, but it's a transition period for them, too."

Heather agreed.

"It's definitely an adjustment," she said. "You have your own routine. You get into what works for you and now all of a sudden you have this person coming back into your life. You have to make sure they fit in somehow.

"But eventually you make that adjustment."

Chyrece Campbell returned from Iraq in May 2009. She and Greg had a baby boy, Greg Jr., last month.

But it wasn't until a very specific moment last week that he felt they had recaptured what they once had as a family.

"It took about a year," said Greg, who is now a stay-at-home dad. "Our family reunion wasn't what you would imagine it to be in Hollywood. It takes a lot of quality time to rebuild our relationship because the phone calls, Skype and all that isn't enough.

"We had really estranged ourselves. Deployments are hard, extremely hard."

But Greg remembers what happened at 4 p.m. last Monday. He was in the kitchen chopping up ingredients for a meal.

"Chyrece stopped me in mid-chop and said, 'Watch your fingers, you might cut yourself,' " Greg said. "And then she embraced me.

"The tone of our talk was the way it was when we first met. It was normal. We weren't trying to re-adjust."

Chyrece will be eligible for another deployment in about a year and a half. Although he understands the military's call, Greg winced at the thought of his wife leaving again.

"Hopefully," Greg said, "(this country) can have some time of peace coming in the near future."