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January 17, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The deployment only lasted a year, but for the children, that year without their dad seemed like an eternity.
Eight-year-old Cade Beckley takes pride in the soccer medals dangling from his wooden shelves, the antlers of a deer his father killed and every video game he owns. His sandy blond hair escapes his baseball hat. Cade bounces around the room as he extracts each item then drops them to the floor until the soft tan carpet is invisible.
When he finally sits down on a small wooden stool, his demeanor shifts. He matter-of-factly explains that his dad, Lt. Col. Brent Beckley of the Missouri National Guard, who was deployed to Afghanistan in May 2011, had to leave to protect people.
Often it’s the little events that are hardest to celebrate without his father’s attention: the touchdown scored at a football game, reading bedtime stories or simply watching television together. Cade Beckley and his older brother Bryce know their father will be coming back home. The absence of their parent doesn’t have the permanence of a divorce or death. But that doesn’t make the pain any less distressing.
For one year, Cade communicated with his father through email, airfreight packages and Skype. He preferred to write letters. He corresponded on thickly lined paper with drawings adorning the back. “I want to write so many notes that nobody could think that I wrote that many,” Cade says.
Cade beams as he shows a two-headed dragon drawn for his dad. He’s sent multiple dragon drawings to make his father’s room in Afghanistan “cooler.”
Cade doesn’t tear up or avoid questions about his altered childhood. He has a word for missing his dad. He calls it going “cuckoo.” When cuckooness overcomes him, he fixes it by hurrying to the kitchen and downing two or three V8 Fusion juices. “When I go cuckoo, I just like to drink,” Cade says.
He clutches a small wooden cross tightly to his chest, one he got when his dog Sam died years ago. Staring down at the cross, which he calls a plus, Cade explains that as much as he misses his dog, it’s not nearly as much as he misses his dad. Cade’s hyperactivity and toothy smile fade when he reflects on how things are different now. “Since we only have three people, it’s not really fun anymore. It’s not fun without my dad.”
Cade’s 15-year-old brother, Bryce, is not as eager to discuss the topic as he lounges on the couch in grey sweatpants swinging headphones around his fingers. When his parents told him and Cade at the dinner table one night that their father would be deployed for a year, Bryce was surprised. “For a second, I kind of thought they were joking,” Bryce says. After realizing they were serious, he didn’t know what to expect.
Even with notice, a deployment often comes as a shock. For military kids, it can be as simple as a family dinner announcement that this year will be different. From October 2010 to September 2011, the Missouri National Guard deployed 1,681 soldiers and 346 airmen around the world for overseas operations, The Missouri National Guard’s 2011 Annual Report states. According to federal data from 2011, the U.S. employs 2.2 million service members of the active, National Guard and Reserve components. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 2 million troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the report says. Fifty-five percent of the armed force is married and 40 percent have two children. According to the report, more than 700,000 children have experienced at least one parental deployment.
Carey Beckley, the boys’ mother, is the secretary to the principal at North Elementary in Jefferson City. Carey was nerovous about her husband’s absence. “I just worry about us not having that time together,” Carey says. “Missing out on the boys growing and what they are doing throughout the year. That’s family.”
For Bryce, that means scanning the crowds at his soccer, football, baseball and basketball games and not finding his father rooting for him. He had grown accustomed to seeing his father in the bleachers, since his dad was at almost all of his events. “Not having him here just doesn’t make it full,” Bryce says.
On a different large plush sofa in a different warm home, Adeline, Hayden and Emma Forester echo the Beckleys’ feelings. Leaving the cuddled comfort of her siblings, the youngest, 7-year-old Emma, prances over in her hot-pink shirt, her blond hair bouncing behind her.
She and her father shared a bedtime ritual of reading the princess book he gave her. The stories of little princesses and their fathers soothe Emma to sleep and cheer her up if she’s sad. The absence of her dad, Maj. Sam Forester, deployed with the Ag Development Team 5 of the Missouri National Guard to Afghanistan in May 2011, called for more cheering up than usual.
“It’s kind of like…” Emma breaks off and turns to her brother Hayden. When she starts again, her blue eyes are slightly glistening. “It’s like you kind of think he is gonna come back, but what if it’s gonna change and it’s gonna be longer.”
Tiffany Forester, the children’s mother, who works as a substitute teacher, kept a calendar and checked off each day of the deployment and found comfort in knowing the end date was coming. The average deployment means a year of separation, with nine months of “boots on the ground,” or overseas work, and three months of training before the soldiers leave the states. Ten-year-old Hayden says it helped to hear his mother tell them they are one day, one week, one month closer to seeing their dad. For Hayden, it meant one day closer to working outside on fix-it-up projects, such as the old, rusted bike he and his dad repaired before he left.
Sam was on his third deployment. Hayden says he treated this deployment like the others, coping one day at a time. But knowing what to expect made things much better. This time, they were able to Skype with Sam twice a week. Sam pried himself from bed at 4:30 a.m. so his children could hear his voice before they crawled into bed.
Hayden fixes his eyes on his fingers, methodically popping each one. Hayden focuses on his dad’s return. Tears are perched at the edges of his eyes as he repeats, “I know he is going to come back,” for the third time.
While neither the Beckleys nor the Foresters say their children have experienced behavioral problems, some children do. According to a 2010 federal study, outpatient visits for behavioral health issues among a group of children ages 3 to 8 with military parents increased 11 percent. The study found an increase of 18 percent in behavioral disorders and 19 percent in stress disorders when a parent was deployed.
Twelve-year-old Adeline is more concerned with her family than herself. She says it’s her responsibility to know what her younger siblings need to hear to feel better. She says for Emma that means short, simple reminders that everything is going to be OK. But Hayden is older this time, and Adeline knows it’s harder on him because he understands the situation more.
This was the third time Adeline had to say goodbye to her father. She says she just pretends he is going off to work and he will be waiting at home after school. Adeline says when she talked to him on Skype, it’s like seeing him after a long day of work.
Each time something happened or a thought crossed her mind that she wanted to share with her dad, she ran for a piece of paper and scribbled it down. Her pieces of paper lay in wait for Skype day.
Adeline tries to explain to her friends what it’s like to have a deployed parent. “I say just try to close your eyes and imagine your parent being away for a year or a year and a half and only getting to write letters to them, see them on Skype.” Children of deployed parents don’t have to imagine it. They live it.
Walking into the Beckley house now, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual. Bryce lies on the couch watching television and texting, Cade is downstairs playing Call of Duty, Carey is walking in the door from work and Brent is fixing the garage door.
Both Brent Beckley and Sam Forester have now returned from their deployments. Their year of service means they should spend five years at home before the next deployment according to the ARFORGEN (Army Force Generation) cycle. The cycle places National Guard members on a one- and five-year rotation and active military on a one- and two-year rotation. Brent says that only works if there isn’t a major disaster or an unforeseen foreign conflict.
Both families met the soldiers at the welcome home ceremony, which Adeline says seemed like an eternity. They waited while Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other speakers welcomed the troops. “I remember I was so nervous I broke out in hives, and then I felt even more nervous,” Emma says. “But when I saw him, it got better.”
While the homecoming was full of long-awaited hugs, it meant more adjusting for the families. Brent, who was promoted to colonel in February 2011 during the deployment, says he had it easier overseas. “Being deployed, I worried about one thing, the task in front of me,” Brent says. “But now it’s picking the boys up, paying the bills, helping with homework, driving them to practice and fixing the broken garage door.”
Things appear to have settled back into a routine now. Bryce has his learner’s permit, and his dad is teaching him how to drive. Cade’s hand-drawn pictures no longer hang in Brent’s room in Afghanistan but on the family’s refrigerator. Hayden says he is just happy to not be the only boy around the house. And Emma no longer has to Skype her father before going to bed; he can tuck her in himself. Adeline is back to building projects outside with her dad.
But mainly, it’s the little changes that have meant the most. It’s the relief from fear. Bryce says it’s all about “just having him here so I know he is still here, and we can still have him.”