Families of deployed sailors cope in their absence

Friday, July 4, 2008

Click here to enlarge this photo
Staff photo by PAUL C. LEIBE
During a recent welcome-home party for returning Pax River sailors, Capt. Andy Macyko, left, and Rear Adm. Bill Shannon listen as Cmdr. Michelle Guidry steps up to the microphone to thank everyone who showed their support while she was deployed to Iraq. Guidry will be promoted to captain in August.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Photo courtesy of Rachel Fant
Cmdr. Rachel Fant visits townspeople during her individual assignment to Camp Dub in Afghanistan. She frequently checked on the communities around camp to see what supplies the Afghani people could use.

Making plans in advance of Rachel Fant’s year-long deployment to Afghanistan wasn’t as difficult as it might have been.

Fant, a Navy commander working with NAVAIR’s F-18⁄EA-18 program at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, would ultimately be away from her home, her job and her family 15 months, from October 2006 until December 2007.

Donald Fant – a Navy chief warrant officer who retired in 2001 – had been staying home and taking care of the couple’s daughter, Alexandra, who was born shortly after he retired.

So, when Rachel left for her overseas assignment, ‘‘Not a whole lot changed at home,” said Donald. ‘‘I was already ‘Mr. Mom.’ I had been doing it all along. If I’d had to leave for a while, for example, I think it would have been much different for us, but Alexandra was already used to being with me every day.”

Cmdr. Michelle Guidry and her husband, Tyrone Hickie, also began planning early for her overseas deployment. In early 2007, she knew she’d soon be getting orders, since her last deployment had been a decade earlier. ‘‘We were ready a full year before” she received orders to Iraq in May 2007, Guidry said. ‘‘We knew I needed to be ready at any minute to deploy. We just didn’t know where or for how long I’d be gone.”

Guidry and Hickie, a former Marine who came to Maryland to be with Guidry, were raising his two sons from a previous marriage – Timothy, then 18, and Justin, 17 – and the couple’s son together, Garrett, who was then 5.

By the time she received orders, the couple’s wills were already in order, they had arranged to have many of their bills paid by automatic monthly withdrawals from the bank, and Hickie’s sister, Alice, who lives in Illinois, was named Garrett’s legal guardian – ‘‘mother in absentia,” Guidry called the arrangement – during Guidry’s deployment.

The day before Guidry left for Iraq, Garrett traveled to Illinois to be with his aunt Alice.

‘‘We knew Alice would be coming here later in the year,” said Guidry, ‘‘and we just thought it would be easier to give Garrett a little vacation on his own” when his mom left for Iraq.

Navy nurse Maggie Hutchens’ daughter, Olivia, had just turned 2 when her mother deployed to Iraq as a flight nurse in July 2005.

Olivia went to stay with Hutchens’ parents in Chicago. Hutchens and her husband were separated and attempting to reconcile. Hutchens’ husband, who worked in Washington, D.C., didn’t yet have day care arranged near his work, and Hutchens sent Olivia to Chicago while he got things worked out.

In the end, Olivia’s father decided not to disrupt her by moving her back before the end of Hutchens’ deployment.

Olivia was happy with her grandparents, said Hutchens.

‘‘It was kind of shocking for us that [Hutchens] was going” to Iraq even though she had a young child, said Hutchens’ father, Ramon Rocha. He said Hutchens’ deployment was ‘‘very difficult for us, especially toward the end.”

About a month before Hutchens returned from deployment, her mother was taken to the hospital with heart palpitations.

‘‘We were probably worrying a little too much,” said Rocha. Still, he said, ‘‘the baby was the one who was probably suffering the most.”

Olivia often told her grandparents, ‘‘I wish I was a little bird so I could fly and see my mommy.” And when she saw planes flying, she sometimes yelled, ‘‘Mommy! Mommy!” Rocha said he and his wife tried to help Olivia through the deployment by giving her ‘‘lots of love.”

One day on the phone, Rocha told his daughter, ‘‘You have to get out of the Navy. You can’t do this to me again and you can’t do this to your daughter again.”

Hutchens said she was usually able to call home two or three times a week, and to communicate by e-mail. It helped Olivia tremendously to hear mom’s voice, Hutchens said. But there were times she couldn’t call, and her parents worried.

Guidry was also able to call home at least once or twice a week, to chat with her husband and the boys.

‘‘We talked all the time,” she said. ‘‘If I didn’t call for a few days, Ty would get worried.”

From her office in Baghdad – where one wall above her desk was covered with photos from home – Guidry regularly went on the Internet to pay the few monthly bills that weren’t being handled automatically by the bank.

‘‘I have problems with a checkbook,” Hickie admitted. ‘‘This way was much better for all of us.”

Guidry regularly sent e-mails to Ty and text messages to Timothy’s and Justin’s cell phones. She faithfully made monthly Power Point presentations of photos and text – Guidry called it her ‘‘status report to home” – and sent them to her family so they could see where she was living and what she was doing.

‘‘In a lot of ways,” Guidry said, ‘‘deploying now is so much easier than it ever has been in the past.”

The couple never tried to hide information from Garrett about where his mother was or what she was doing, but they chose to not go into too much detail, either.

‘‘I think, at that age,” Hickie said, ‘‘they’re still pretty naive. We just kind of [said] that mom was helping people in another country for a while and left it at that. He didn’t even know she was wearing a gun until he saw one in a picture.”

At summer’s end, Ty’s sister Alice arrived and stayed with the Hickie men for about three months.

At Christmas, when Guidry came home on two weeks’ leave, ‘‘Alice was running things, and I kind of felt like a guest in my own home,” Guidry said.

After Christmas, Ty’s brother, Steve, took time off from his job and arrived for a two-month visit.

Every week while Guidry was deployed, said Hickie, neighbors in their Lexington Park community would help by bringing prepared meals to the house.

‘‘We were very lucky” during his wife’s absence, said Hickie. ‘‘We have great friends, great neighbors, and a great family network.

‘‘All in all,” he said, ‘‘I think we had it really good. Sure, we missed Michelle, but the teens helped me with the day-to-day things that needed to be done. And Garrett – he’s a very smart young man – he was a big help around here, too.

‘‘I think it takes a special breed of person” to stay comfortable when a spouse or parent is absent for any length of time, Ty said, ‘‘and my boys were great. There was hardly any boo-hooing at all.”

Donald Fant said Rachel’s deployment ‘‘was not something we relished or wanted to happen, but in the Navy you have a regimen, a routine you follow. It helps you keep order.

‘‘I always made sure Alexandra was in bed by a certain time,” he said, ‘‘and was up at a certain time. Things like that. It wasn’t really military, but it was a routine we could live with, and it makes the time go by faster.”

‘‘My husband and daughter did very well while I was gone,” agreed Rachel. Rachel missed Alexandra’s fifth and sixth birthdays while in Afghanistan and one of Donald’s birthdays as well.

‘‘But I later learned that I bought him a very nice birthday present that year,” she joked.

Donald said his wife was able to call home and talk with their daughter ‘‘almost every day, and that sure helped.”

During her deployment, Rachel Fant regularly exchanged e-mails with home and friends, and children in her step-grandson’s grade school class sent her cards and letters with pictures. She referred to the camp’s daily mail call as ‘‘morale call.”

Fant did get home for two weeks’ leave about midway through her deployment, but it was a bit tougher for the family than expected.

‘‘I enjoyed being home,” she said, ‘‘and I tried to relax. But knowing I would be leaving again, soon, it was hard to settle in. And I think it was hard on Alexandra, too. She was very clingy to me the whole time I was home.”

During her 15 months away, Rachel said, ‘‘there were no traumatic events back home. Donald did a terrific job, as always. But, as a mom, every day away was my worst day.”

‘‘It took a little time for everyone to readjust,” Donald said, when Rachel did finally return after her deployment. ‘‘When she first got home, she was very businesslike. We could tell she was happy to be home, but she just couldn’t seem to relax at first.

‘‘But when you love someone,” he said, ‘‘you take the time you need to make things work.”