Let the Chaos Begin

E models her booney hat.
Sean and K at a family briefing.

So the call came in mid-February 2005, and I saw my husband sometime later that year. Seriously, our lives were a blur for months to come. Sean worked full-time at the fire department from February to May, ten 24-hour shifts a month. He also worked 10-12 hour days at the Reserve Center on his “days off” as the mobilization officer preparing everything for the unit to deploy. Of course the military viewed this as the volunteer portion of his service, so there was no compensation for this extra time, except Sean’s determination to have things ready. His mission statement was: I’m taking 118 soldiers with me, and I’m bringing 118 home.

At the end of May 2005 Sean put his job at the FD on hold for full-time active duty with the military. This came with 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week, with the exception of the 4th of July holiday where I believe he was home for a record 3 days in a row.

When school ended in May, I joined him at the unit for the summer as assistant Family Readiness Group leader. We made phone trees, phone calls, drove out-of-town soldiers to appointments, provided beverages and snacks, served meals when soldiers were busy with classes, filled out paperwork (would you believe people can get into the army–some of them previously deployed–without a birth certificate?), filled out insurance forms, planned activities, briefings, and send-offs. We collected donations from all around the state, spoke with the media, had fundraisers, and organized with dignitaries’ offices for send-off festivities. Occasionally, we saw our children, slept, bought groceries, or saw our husbands. By the end of that summer, dropping the names Susie (our fearless leader) and Melissa got things done! I have to brag that since this deployment, Majors and Colonels have used us as the example for how an FRG should run. Tirelessly, fearlessly, (pay-less-ly), and with a mission to support our soldiers and families.

Our kids, especially E (13) and K (11), worked right along with us. They came to the unit and got to know the soldiers. I think this was a way for them to feel comfortable with where dad was going and who he would be with. They babysat countless hours for Susie’s boys, then 6 months and 6 years old. Even J (14) came and sold t-shirts and served pancakes at the fair. Ok, he and his friend slept in the van while the girls served breakfast and then they washed the dishes.

In July we held a briefing to give family members information they would need during deployment. That afternoon, we had a family picnic in 100 + weather. August 6, 2005 we hosted an Activation Ceremony for 118 troops, their friends, families, dignitaries, military personnel, and the public.

On August 7, 2005 at 7:00 AM, Sean and a small advanced party left from the airport. It was a tear-filled morning for all of us. Watching the soldiers pose with families for one last picture. . . seeing them go through check-in. . . past security. . . removing their boots for inspection (I’ll never get over the irony of soldiers being inspected for flight). . . one last wave through the glass partition. . . the plane slowly taxiing down the tarmac. . .

And the day continued from there, for we still had 108 soldiers and families at the Reserve Center to prepare for the next day’s departure.

August 8th was a gorgeous morning with a bright blue sky. Of course, I overslept and had about 15 minutes from the phone call to wake me up to arrive at the RC. Thanks to an awesome stylist and new short haircut, I was able to make it. We had balloons for the kids, and markers to write messages for their soldiers. The National Guard was on hand to load baggage into trucks and transfer to the airport. Our National Guard had returned six months prior from their Iraqi tour of duty. There were cookies and juice, posters, hugs, more tears, more last-minute photo ops.

Our guest speaker was a former First Sergeant of the unit, who had deployed to Desert Storm with many of these soldiers when they were new recruits. This time, he would send two of his sons to Iraq, and he would stay home with two daughters-in-law, and four granddaughters. There was not a dry eye in the crowd this morning.

The logistics of moving 108 soldiers, gear, weapons, families, friends, and well-wishers through our small local airport was of utmost importance for the security and safety of all. We could not release a flight time, but a general “morning” flight. The terminal cannot handle that many passengers, so we were set to load onto a privately contracted commerical airliner at the old airport terminal. Family members and the rest could be in the parking lot to wave good-bye. Soldiers would be bussed from the RC to the airport. We were given a strict boarding time so as to not mess with the regular flights in and out of the airport.

At precisely 9:00 AM, we gave the announcement to say goodbye and board the busses. Talk about being the least popular kids on the playground! We had sent our husbands off the day before, so we had been through the heartache, but do you think people cut us any slack?

As per military protocol–hurry up and wait. With one bus loaded, we got the phone call, “The plane is on the ground. . . in Minneapolis. Load the busses in one hour.” We decided not to make the announcement right then, and instead loaded the busses and moved to the airport. Once there, everyone off the bus, hug your loved ones, say goodbye again, and wait for the plane.

At last the plane arrived, and the soldiers boarded, shouting, “I love you!” and “I’ll miss you!” as they went. One soldier took a moment and stuck his head out of the door to shout, “Susie, there is a ton of food left in the kitchen. Can you take care of it?” And of course, we did. The local women’s shelter was thrilled with the donation.

And then, we slept.

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