This was not not even in my mind as I created this new blog. In fact, the “first” story was almost done and ready to go before the New Year, but as it often can, life got in the way. So, that post is not done yet.
But this post, might even be a better inaugural post for a blog called “Waiting” since that is what I am doing….Waiting. I arrived at Fort Campbell late Wednesday night to do just that for a few days….wait. In the past almost two and a half years, I have found that Army Moms do a lot of that – wait. While I am sure that the experience is the same for a Marine Mom, a Navy Mom, an Air Force Mom, and a Coast Guard Mom, this post will focus on Army Moms, since that is the experience that I am most familiar. From the website Statista (https://www.statista.com/statistics/239383/total-military-personnel-of-the-us-army-by-grade/), there are 473,966 active duty military personnel during Fiscal Year 2018. This includes officers, enlisted and cadets. These numbers don’t include the members of the National Guard, which according to the same website, has 343,500 military personnel in 2018 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/207392/national-guard-members-in-the-usa/) If you add those numbers together, it would equal 817,466 military personnel and 817,466 Army Moms. Since there is no more draft, these 817,466 Army personnel, voluntarily chose to serve our country in this manner and 817,466 Army Moms who do a lot of waiting and worrying.
My boys grew up in an affluent suburb of Boston, where the Army as a career choice (and particularly an enlisted member of the Army) was not one that you heard out of the mouths of their high school guidance counselors. While there was an Air Force base in the next town, the students whose family members were in the service, were not a part of my boys’ high school. My original career was working as a Food Technologist for the Department of Defense, both of my boys’ grandfathers were members of the Armed Services, but that was about as much exposure to the military that my boys had. Both boys grew up playing firemen, not soldiers. So, when Ben approached me in the summer of 2016, about his exploring the possibility of joining the Army, to say I was rather surprised, would be an understatement. I reached out to Jeanne, a former parent in my classroom, since her son had also recently enlisted in the Marines for questions about this process. My thinking was that from my experience with the DoD, that this process would take a while. Ben was scheduled to go up to Portland Maine to take more tests in the middle of August. I again was very surprised that after Ben returned from that, he came over to told me that he had signed his enlistment papers. Again, I was banking on my DoD experience, when I asked him when he would be going. “September 12th”, he replied. That was a mere three weeks away. Not exactly the snail like pace that I expected, but in a way, this short time frame prevented the waiting for this to happen. It was akin to having a bandaid removed quickly from a cut rather than removing it slowly and having the pain last longer. There was much to be done in that three week time period and those three weeks flew.
The morning of September 12th arrived and Ben had asked me to drive him to the recruiter’s office in Waltham, which from there, he would be driven to Portland where he would be sworn in the next day. That morning also flew by and before I knew it, we were at the Recruiter’s office. Even though my boy was 25 at that point, I wanted to walk him in, even if it meant that it would make it potentially more difficult to say good-bye. Following him in was a young man, who was not accompanied by his parent(s). I quickly told Ben that I would see him tomorrow, went back to my car, and headed back to school, where I was hoping that an afternoon of training about how to do evaluations would take my mind off of what had just happened.
Tuesday September 13th came early and my brother David, graciously agreed to drive me up to the Portland Recruiting Center, where Ben would be formally sworn in as a member of the US Army. We arrived there ahead of the schedule, and my training as an Army Mom would now formally begin. We went upstairs, signed in, and were directed to a waiting room. I distinctly remember feeling like a deer in the headlights. My brother and I sat down next to another family, who probably could tell from the look on my face, that I was a newbie at this role. The mom told me that this was her third son that joined the Army, that her husband was career military and that her daughter in law would be joining in several months. It seemed pretty obvious to me that many of the people in that waiting room had prior experience with this process. Before long, Ben scooted into the room to say hello. We had a few moments of small talk before he was summoned to his waiting room. And then, the moment arrived… everyone was asked to go back downstairs for the actual swearing in ceremony. These men and women stood tall and proud and swore their allegiance to defending the United States Constitution. My eyes filled with tears about the life changing words that I just heard from Ben. We had about ten minutes for pictures and talking. Those ten minutes went quickly and off he strode to his new career. David and I stopped at the Dunkin Donuts, where we met many of the other families who were there at the ceremony. These families were also experienced military families. There were aunts there, who had been in the service, and were there to see their nephew off. What became pretty evident in my first lesson, that was in some areas of the country (and in this case New England), being in the military was a clear career option and that many families had multiple family members who served in the Armed Services.
And now the real waiting began. Jeanne had warned me about random calls in the middle of the night from your child that sounded more like a hostage message. I knew he was on his way to Fort Benning Georgia, and I had no idea when I would receive a call. My cell phone became my new best friend, and a mere day later, after coming home from Back to School Night, my phone lit up with Ben’s caller ID. Excitedly, I answered the phone and heard my boy’s voice. He was in what is called “reception”, a new military vocabulary word for me, that was nothing like the definition that I knew. Instead it means that the soldier is waiting for their training or new job to begin. For them, it’s a lot of “hurry up and wait”. There is no predetermined time in this phase. Our phone call lasted exactly four minutes and I wasn’t sure when I would hear from Ben again. Several days later, I went with a friend to pick up lunch at Brother’s MarketPlace. While waiting for Tracy to select her food, my phone rang and Ben’s caller ID came up. Quickly I picked up the phone and started to run out of the store. However, this time, the call was even briefer than the other night. It consisted of “Mom, I’m starting red phase”. And then it was done. I was sure that I was disconnected because I had no service, so I continued out of the store and called his number. He didn’t pick up. I quickly received a text message that said “That’s all I could say”. And I realized, I would no longer just be able to pick up the phone and call Ben. I was waiting for the next call. I was waiting for a letter with his address. During boot camp, the only way to communicate with your child is through old fashioned letter writing. So, I waited for that letter to arrive in my mailbox. During this wait, I figured out what group he might be in as it seems that some of the Army uses Facebook as a means to keep people informed. And one day, that letter finally arrived in my mailbox. It was a form letter from the Commanding Officer, informing the families when graduation would be and how to properly address an envelope to our soldiers. And there, on the example of how to fill out the envelope properly, was Ben’s small writing with his address. I quickly addressed the nine letters that I had written to him and rushed down to the post office to mail them all. Little did I know, that those letters would cost Ben doing push-ups to receive them all. And so, that is how it went for nine weeks – waiting for a letter to arrive and waiting for the next call to say he was through another phase of basic training. And yes, these calls kept coming at odd times – once while I was at a photography meet-up and another time on a Saturday morning while doing errands. And little by little, we were getting closer and closer to his graduation from Basic Training. It would be a little more than nine weeks since I had seen Ben and I was growing more and more excited to see him. The waiting was almost over.
It was a clear and surprisingly (at least for me) cold Tuesday morning in Georgia when we would get to see Ben. I made Christopher and David get up bright and early so that we could be there with lots of time to spare because the letter said that there would be a lot of traffic getting onto base. But, getting onto base was actually pretty easy because they had the families names at the security, so it was just a matter of getting that pass. This was an outdoor ceremony, and while it was rather chilly, I was excitedly waiting for the group to appear on the field and waiting even more for the group to disperse so that we could actually see and talk with Ben. As a parent, and now as a parent of a member of the Armed Services, it is somewhat hard to know that someone else now dictates the time you can spend with your child. So, when the time came and the group was allowed to go find their families, I was beyond excited to see my boy. He was released to us until early evening and I loved meeting some of his “grumpy old men” buddies and their families (since Ben is older than the average enlisted soldier, I was a little worried that he would not find people his age, so I was pleasantly please when he was actually the youngest of this group!). It was fun to see Ben show us various parts of the base. We went out to dinner in Columbus, Georgia and then it was time to return him to his barracks. The next day was his actual graduation and it was another glorious ceremony. Luckily, since the following day was Thanksgiving, we would have that entire afternoon and the entire holiday with Ben. After most boot camp graduations, families get about 20 minutes with their soldier before they are gathered back up and shipped out (another new vocabulary term) to their next training site. So, I relished every moment of these days and I knew that the next round of training would not be as restrictive.
Ben spent nine months at Fort Gordon in Georgia for his advanced training. During that time frame, he was able to come home for holiday leave, and I was able to see him during Easter and at his graduation. When I was on base for both of those visits, I was lucky to meet some of his colleagues and learn more about them and why they chose to enlist in the Army. For some, it seemed like the Army was a way out of a life back home that didn’t offer many opportunities. While Ben was at Fort Gordon, he called one night to tell me where his next assignment would be. Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I was psyched that he wouldn’t be going to Korea or some other place that I didn’t think was safe. The next call, when I said how great it was that he was going to Kentucky, he said to me, “Mom, Fort Campbell is the home to the 101st Airborne Company.” When I said I didn’t know the significance, he let me know that the 101st is involved in all sorts of conflicts. “Oh” I said, suddenly not feeling as secure as I once did.
So began the Fort Campbell days. I visited there for Thanksgiving 2017, where we did a great hike on Land Between the Lakes, had Thanksgiving dinner at Cracker Barrel, and explored Nashville. I had an unexpected visit back to Fort Campbell in January 2018 when Ben was injured in an automobile accident. It was during this trip, that Christopher asked him what would happen to his room during deployment, It was the first time that I heard the “D” word mentioned. Spending Easter in Baltimore with the boys, there was a little more definite talk of a deployment occuring in the summer. And then it was definite: Ben would be heading to Afghanistan sometime in June for nine months. And like that time between announcing he was enlisting and leaving for boot camp, this time seemed to fly once again. Ben brought his car home in May, I held a get together of friends and family to see him off, and then it was time to bring him to Logan Airport. Luckily, the traffic to the airport was horrendous, which provided me with a little more time with Ben. And then, he was off and the waiting until he was back, officially began.
But before he could come back, he had to first officially leave. And that waiting was like that slow way to remove a bandaid. The first date he was supposed to leave was a Wednesday. We did the What’s App app video chat to say our goodbyes, only to receive a text later that his departure had been delayed until that Saturday. Saturday came and he never even made it out of his barracks as his flight was delayed once again for 24 hours. Would the third time be the charm? Finally, I got a text from him that he was at the hangar and there were planes outside, so this time looked to be it. And it was. I created a countdown calendar for March 15th and so, the long wait began.
One of the worse things to worry and then wait about was when I heard on the news that there had been an issue involving US troops in Afghanistan. The first time this happened, I felt sick to my stomach. Knowing that your child is in an unsafe area is one thing; but realizing that they could be in harm’s way was another rude awakening. And then, knowing that someone else’s Mom was having a really bad day was heart wrenching.
So, what did I do to pass the time during this deployment? One of the first really helpful things that I did was join the Military Family Support Group, that is based in Concord. The founders created this group in the early part of the war in Afghanistan because people with children in the military felt isolated and this provided families with the support of other families going through the same experience. This group provided me with lots of great resources, starting with sending me to see Lisa at the Concord Post Office for advice on mailing packages to Afghanistan. Lisa is one of the kindest, most helpful and positive people that you would want to meet. She set me up with custom forms, mailing labels and Priority Mail Flat Rate B boxes that saved me a lot of money. At the meetings, I was able to learn about how other families’ experiences with deployment and was able to ask questions. They also provided me with information about joining a Fort Campbell mother’s group on Facebook that also provided me with some good information. Another valuable tip was the group that would send a Christmas tree to Afghanistan. The Monday after Thanksgiving, Ben called me while I was at work and asked me if I was responsible for a Christmas tree arriving. He said it brightened everyone’s spirits since they would be spending Christmas there. It was nice being with people who understood exactly what you were feeling. So, that is one way that you can pass the time while waiting – find a support group.
Another way I passed the time was sending Ben and his shop a box of goodies every other week. I got a lot of pleasure over picking items out that I thought would be good to have. When the weather got cooler, that turned into baking for them. This gave me real purpose and a sense of making these soldiers’ lives a little better. During my “off weeks”, I enlisted friends and family to write to him. So, this was fun and helped me count the weeks down until he would be home.
The ability to pretty easily communicate with Ben was another way that made the wait go by a bit quicker. My god-daughter’s husband served in Iraq in the 2003-2006 timeframe and commented that how tough it was for them to communicate with their loved ones back home. But with What’s App and then later, Facebook Messenger, it was really easy to maintain pretty good contact, so that also helped me get through this time period. I video chatted with Ben about once every ten days and that was great to see his face, to see where he lived and to get a glimpse of the land where he was living. The use of facebook by his group was also a great way to see what they were doing and share in celebrations such as promotions and holidays. All of these tools helped me pass the time during the wait and sometimes felt like I was talking to him and he was close by.
Since I am a goal focused person, I also decided to train for a half marathon as I felt that 14 week training program would help me cross a big chunk of time off the calendar quickly. Every week that I finished in my training log meant that it would be one week closer to when Ben would potentially come back. (since we weren’t really sure of the actual date at that point). Exercise is another important way to keep your mind clear and to relieve the stress of being a now Army Mom with a child deployed.
And finally, I used a countdown app to provide me with an approximate number of days. The first one was focused on a return date of March 15th. And the second one was focused on the somewhat more concrete date that I approximated of February 15th. And as I sit here and type this part of the post, it is now February 15th and I have been sitting at Fort Campbell since about 10:00 pm on Wednesday night, waiting for my boy to arrive. I have about five hours now and I am so excited to have this day finally here – the waiting is almost over!
I asked other Army Moms how they passed the time and here are some other perspectives on this time of waiting:
- I am a runner. I trained and ran my first marathon while my son was deployed. I’d say any hobby you have that is time consuming or take up a new hobby.”
- My son has only been gone a month. I finally sent two boxes out. One was a Valentine’s box and the other was his sheets and toiletries. He has told his girlfriend and myself not to send anything. I get a text via WhatsApp daily to answer a question I have asked. He does randomly message me but not a lot of chatting. I also send him pics of our animals and food we have eaten. He has sent us some pics also which we are very thankful. He is not much on FaceTime so we will have to rely on pics and just wait to see him in the fall. I work to keep my mind busy and I know that he is doing is job. He chose this job and I am here to support him. He is only 18 but getting an experience of a lifetime.
- I still don’t have an address yet. He has a younger brother to keep me busy that’s in high school
- I used fb messenger to send messages to my son. All hours of the day and night since his schedule constantly switched. Every few days he would get them all and answer. I very rarely asked specific questions regarding his life on deployment because that is how he wanted it. He tended to tell his father and brothers a few more details than he told me or his wife. He and I talked about some of his flights and the scenery… we talked about our 4 crazy dogs.. how his wife was doing.. and his two crazy little brothers and their silly antics… and unfortunately we talked a little about his papa who passed away in December while my son was deployed. I really didn’t want to notify him of that.. but had to. I did spare him family drama as much as humanly possible so there’s lots of stuff he simply doesn’t know. My goal was to burden him with home as little as possible so that he could keep his mind on the missions.
- I sent him care packages with crazy stuff in it … like coloring books and puzzles… just to let him take a few minutes out of where he was. Also packages with coffee, crystal light, chips, beef jerky, crackers, etc… At Christmas we sent a Christmas tree, lights, and hand painted decorations… an advent calendar that I made and his little brothers put random stuff in😂 … plus small presents. Again.. the idea was to distract him.
We were suppose to arrive at Hangar 3 two hours early, in case the flight arrived even earlier. I could not sit in my hotel room and wait any longer, so I headed out at about 9:25 a.m. and arrived 15 minutes later. I did not have to worry that I would be the first one there as there were about 20 cars already in the parking lot. I followed in families carrying balloons and families pushing baby strollers. When entering the Hangar, I was overwhelmed by all the banners welcoming different groups home, by the huge American flag, and by the 101st Airborne flag. The enormity of this deployment suddenly hit home to me and I was overcome by tears. After heading to the ladies’ room, I found a spot on the bleachers, near another parent and was just quiet and teary. The emotions that had been bottled up over this eight months was now bubbling to the surface and I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t want to say a word to anyone, which is not like me. Finally, as more and more families came in, I pulled it together and began to observe. There were many young children there, wearing tee-shirts such as “My Daddy is My Hero”, and “Move out of the way, my dad is coming home today”. A large pink balloon read “Come meet your baby and see your girls!” Another mom sat on the bottom bleacher, holding her four month old, while her almost two year old girl scampered up and down the stairs and her four year old boy was being chased around by another four year old dressed as a police officer. Another young mom and her four children, each carrying an animal balloon that said “I love you” stood in the middle of the floor for a picture. Young wives were dressed as if they were going out to a fancy restaurant, instead of being at a hot hangar. I was taking this all in, when another young wife, dressed elegantly in a deep red long wool coat and matching red nails came to sit near me. She said how nervous she was, she was just married in March and her husband was deployed in June. Another mom, similar to my age, joined in the conversation. The young wife, had gone home to Arizona during her husband’s deployment to be with her family because she didn’t really know anyone on Ft. Campbell. She had been a member of the National Guard for five years and described how upset that her parents were that she had enlisted and how they were very unsupportive of her decision (she explained that she felt this was more of a cultural issue). The other mom talked about how her son enlisted at age 18, which was a lifelong dream of his because his dad was career Army Special Forces and now works as a trainer for the Navy Seals. It came to me that she had been through deployments both as wife and as a mom and I asked her which was more difficult. Hands down, doing it as a wife was more difficult she said because she had two children to parent as basically a single parent for long stretches of time and with her son deployed, she had her husband to support her. Another young mom and her four year old joined us. She had also gone home with her child since she also did not know anyone on base. I remembered as when I was a stay at home mom, at times, it was very isolating and I was close to family and also was building a new friend base. However, it seemed that for perhaps many of these young moms, it was extremely difficult, being in a strange place, with the only person that you knew well, was in Afghanistan. This is a story that many people don’t know, and I felt privileged to be sitting with these strong women. Waiting in this hangar, surrounded by families with children of all ages, with parents, grandparents, banners, flags and balloons really hit home with what a sacrifice those who serve our Country have made to protect our Constitution.
All during this time, the woman in charge, kept coming up to the microphone and telling us how far away the airplane carrying flight number 9720F was from landing. First it was 90 minutes, then 60 minutes, and then 30 minutes. With 15 minutes to go, we were instructed to go outside to await the arrival of the plane. The cold air was a sharp contrast to the hot hangar, but no-one cared. The Army band was there, the new General who had just assumed the base command yesterday, was there and a set of stair, stood alone on the runway. After not too long of a wait, someone shouted, “There it is, the plane!” I could not pick it out, and the young man standing next to me, pointed out you could see the front light of the plane way off in the distance. It kept coming closer and closer and then, there is was – the plane came into view on the runway. The crowd whistled and cheered. After what seemed a long time, the plane came back, turned around and headed towards the stairs. The General and other personnel, and the band headed out to the plane. After what seemed a long time, and to the cheers of “Open that door!” out walked the first group of soldiers who headed towards the area where I was standing (we were behind fences). And much to my surprise, one of the first soldiers was Ben. I almost missed him walking by, but he was able to spot me with my Welcome Back banner. Hurriedly, I rushed back inside to get a seat on the bleachers. I passed another Mom and Dad, carrying a similar but larger banner of their daughter. I asked that Mom what helped her wait and she said “Prayers, lots of prayers.”
The next set of waiting… for everyone to come back into the hangar, for the doors to open, for the remarks to be over, for two songs to be sung, seemed to take forever. And then the word was given to go find your families. I didn’t know how I would find Ben in this sea of people. But I didn’t have to wait for long. He found me. My tears flowed freely as my strong son hugged me. The waiting was over.
Waiting – the story of Army Moms and Army Families. Thank them all for their service and sacrifice.