The first in a series on the lives of military families.
We all love watching the videos – the moment when a young boy runs with open arms to his soldier mom who has been overseas for months. Or the Marine dad who disguises himself as an umpire to surprise his daughter at her softball game. The “welcome homes” are heartwarming and bring tears to the eyes of even those with the stiffest of upper lips.
What we don’t see in these moments are all that preceded them…the heart-wrenching goodbyes, the school concerts missed, the hundreds of meals with an empty chair, the holidays not quite complete, the worry about a loved one never making it home.
They are all part of the challenges that military families face when mom or dad is deployed.
The McFarland family knows very well what it’s like. Petty Officer First Class Michael McFarland (known as Dad at their Idaho home, and as Doc to the Marines and sailors he provides medical care for) is currently on his fifth deployment, this time on a Navy ship heading to Bahrain. He has been in the Marines for 12 years now, and been deployed for more than a third of that time. He and his wife Sandy have learned what works best for them and their three kids to make deployment as smooth and tolerable as possible.
“We are very honest with our children about what deployment is and what I have to do,” Doc says. “They understand that there are bad people out there and that there are people that need help.”
“We don’t sugarcoat where he’s going or what he’s doing,” Sandy echoes. “Dad is going to go fight the bad guys.”
In the weeks leading up to deployment, Doc and Sandy try to keep everything as normal as possible. Routines, and the comfort and consistency they provide, help in the transition to when he will be gone. At the same time, there is a definite uptick in family activities.
“We try and squeeze in as much time together building good memories as we can in the hopes that they will carry us through deployment until we can make more,” says Doc.
Amidst all the memory-making, however, he says the shadow of what’s to come still looms large.
“It’s terrible. There is this heavy weight and it seems like you can feel every second tick by and it’s just too fast.”
All too soon, it’s “the day.” As emotional as the welcome homes are, the goodbyes are equally so, but on the complete other end of the spectrum. As heart-wrenching as it is, Doc says he tries to hide how he’s feeling, hoping that seeing him be strong will make it easier on his family.
“How do you walk away from your entire life? It’s a struggle – a constant battle to keep it together…Inside though, I’m dying.”
Sandy says it’s no easier for her…
“People have no idea what it feels like to watch him walk away and not know if you’re going to see him again.”
After the emotional whirlwind of their dad’s departure, getting the kids settled into their routines is crucial, says Sandy. She makes sure those routines include him as much as possible. Before or after dinner, there’s quiet time to write in the journals their dad gave them before he deployed. He has one too, and when he gets home, they will exchange them.
Sandy keeps her phone stuck to her hip, never wanting to miss an opportunity to hear her husband’s voice. If they can, they FaceTime with him during dinner, even if it’s 4:00am where Doc is, saying the family prayer together, and talking about the favorite parts of everyone’s day. Today’s technology helps them all keep in touch, through phone calls, texts, and emails depending on what’s available. Each deployment is different – sometimes it’s a ten-minute phone call on a satellite phone in the middle of some country. Other times he has access to a computer. Technology definitely helps Doc feel not so far away.
“To be able to see the pictures of what your kids did that day or be able to watch them open their gifts on Christmas morning… A letter, though, still means a lot too.”
Holidays, of course, are extra difficult. Sandy says she tries to keep them as traditional as possible for the kids. Doc strung the Christmas lights before he left in early December, and Sandy snuck a little Christmas tree in his bag, but they didn’t exchange gifts before deployment day.
“That would be too hard,” she says.
For his part, Doc avoids any of the holiday events wherever he is stationed because nothing could compare to sharing it with his family. He tries to treat it as any other day and just get past it.
Of course, missing big life events – especially the “firsts” – is difficult for him too. They are all times the family won’t get back. Even more tough, he says? The regular old bad days.
“The hardest days are those ones when I know someone back home isn’t having a good day. I’m not there to help or fix it. I just have to watch helplessly.”
The kids, too, get frustrated with their dad’s absence, Sandy says, and react in different ways. But on the whole, they are used to his job and where it takes him. And while the concern for Doc’s safety is never far from Sandy’s mind, she says the kids aren’t worried about that.
“They think their daddy is Super Man, and that nothing bad can happen to him.”
Doc explains, “They know that my Marines take care of me and I take care of them, and they’ll always do all they can to make sure I get home safe.”
And that – Doc’s homecoming – is something he anticipates will be amazing and terrifying all at the same time. While coming home is what he will be dreaming about for more than a year, he says it can be awkward as well as wonderful.
“You’re thrown off because things aren’t like you’ve had them in your head the whole time. The pitch of your children’s voices is different and they’ve grown and you worry how they’re going to react. Your wife is right there in front of you but you haven’t touched or been touched by a woman in months so you’re nervous about just kissing your own wife. They all look a little bit different and everyone is happy but guarded because on some level, we have been strangers for this long period of time…living separate lives and having separate experiences.”
They will relearn how things work, Doc says, and fall right back in step with one another. Or, if not, then they will put in the work to find their groove again. It’s all the things he is nervous about that he looks forward to the most, like seeing and holding his kids.
“You forgot how small they feel when you hug them. Seeing your wife, kissing her and remembering what that’s like. Getting into your own car and coming to your house. It’s a million little things you never think about in your normal day to day, but they’re so clear in those moments because you’ve been absent from them for so long.”
And as much as his family is understanding, patient, and supportive, they’re also ready for him to stay home. Sandy sums it up:
“We don’t want him to go anymore. We want him around.”