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Cover Stories

FEB. 2011 - One Soldier’s Story: Staying Close While Far Away

Category: Cover Stories

By Rhonda M. Lawson

Nov. 19, 2010, marked the sixth birthday I’ve missed in my 11-year-old daughter’s life. Although depressing, I take solace in the fact that my daughter and I maintain a very healthy relationship. This hasn’t been easy. After all, being a soldier for the last 17 years has taken me away from home almost on a regular basis.

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of lessons learned. Each time I’ve left home, I’ve learned new ways to stay close to my daughter. As she gets older, I’ve learned that our relationship remains even more important because she’s approaching those ever-important pre-teen years. As the rigors of self-esteem, popularity, book smarts and street smarts hit her, she will need much more than me sending money back home and making the occasional phone call to say hello. She will need her mother. And sometimes, a grandmother, aunt, best friend or cousin just won’t fit the bill. So until I’m able to be stable, it’s important for me to make the best of the time we have. Different people do this in different ways, but I’ve found that the following steps have served me well

• Staying close starts way before you leave.
We can’t stop our minds from bombarding us with “I wish I had” thoughts, but we can ease them if we take time to make memories before leaving. Before leaving home, spend quality time with the kids. I took my daughter to Disney World, but I’ve also done less expensive things like just watching a movie together or doing her hair. These moments helped to cement our relationship, so when I did leave and make my “just checking on you” calls, we didn’t sit listening to awkward pauses, wondering what to say next. The best part of it all was that I had great memories to fall back on when times got hard during my deployment.

• Quality time can still happen when you’re gone.
As I alluded to in my first point, once you deploy, the quality time doesn’t have to stop. There have been days when I called home and just let my daughter go on and on about what happened in school, who her best friends were that week or whatever else she had on her mind. I let her determine the conversation, which allowed her to open up more. I also had my daughter develop a “fun list,” which consisted of things we would do once I returned. Each time I call home, we review the fun list so I can keep it in perspective. Sometimes her list ranges from the very simple to the outrageous. It’s important to know that you can’t do everything. Being realistic will mitigate broken promises.

• There’s more than one way to call home.
Take advantage of your technology. As long as you have access to a computer, you have access to free ways to call home, including instant messaging, Facebook, Skype and other technological wonders. Allowing my daughter to have a Facebook page has worked better than I expected. One note of caution on this, however: there are still Internet predators out there, so it’s important that if you take the social media route that you continually monitor your children’s pages. Privacy settings are also important, so learn to use them for yourselves as well as your children. One other note: although we have all of this technology at our fingertips, there’s nothing wrong with continuing with the written word. Encouraging letter writing will help your child with spelling and penmanship. Also, let’s face it – who doesn’t like getting a real letter in the mail?

• Be creative.
If social media isn’t your thing, find other things you can do together from far away. Exercise. Set a goal that you both can live with, like using the Wii Fit every other day. Watch some of the same TV shows so you can discuss them later, even if it’s iCarly”! Encourage projects. Many teenagers are now running nonprofit organizations that started from sending care packages to their parents who were away at war. Other ideas can include saving loose change during the deployment so the two of you can do something special once you return, or taking photos to chronicle your time apart. If reading is your thing, try visiting your local United Service Organizations. The USO has an excellent program called United Through Reading, which allows service members to record themselves reading stories to their kids. The USO packages the DVD and book, and then sends it to the child.

• Let who’s in charge be in charge.
This is probably one of the most important tips I’ve learned. I have to remember sometimes that I left my daughter in the hands of people who love her as much as I do. Although I may not always agree with the decisions my mother makes concerning my daughter, I can’t run the household from 2,000 miles away. Trying to do so will just bring undue stress on everyone. Along with this, don’t try to immediately take over once you return. As soldiers, we are reminded that our families have been running the household for an entire year without our help. It will be a while before you can transition back into your role as decision-maker. Your time will come, but in the interest of your sanity as well as the sanity of those around you, try to make it a slow transition, accepting the help of your family.

No time away from your family is easy, but the way we handle that time will keep it from getting too difficult. Children, especially those of deployed service members, have a lot to deal with on top of their parents being away. Some develop emotional issues that only time will help heal. By trying to ease the time for the child as well as yourself, you will find that you will also make valuable contributions to your child’s development.

Rhonda Lawson is a sergeant first class stationed at Fort Stewart, where she works in Army Public Affairs. She is currently serving in Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. She has been a soldier for more than 17 years. She is the author of four novels, including the latest, “Putting It Back Together,” which is set against the backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans.

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