Let’s face it — fatherhood has its challenges. The days of less responsibility, leaving the house on a whim, staying out late with friends and co-workers without finding a sitter, cooking for just yourself (and significant other, if applicable), and other small freedoms you took for granted, are over for a while. But perhaps the biggest challenge of being a military dad lies within a periodic inability to physically be near your son or daughter. This is the reality of deployment.
During my active duty years (2005-2009), I was stationed on a Coast Guard cutter (ship) that mostly stuck to a routine schedule: three months in, three months out. Sometimes that varied, giving our crew a little bit more (or less) time at the homeport, while deployments seemed to match that time on patrols through the Bering Sea or Central American coasts. I married my wife halfway through my time serving on board the cutter, so we immediately experienced some of the hardships of physical separation as a young family.
Now, imagine adding kids to the situation. At the time, it was just my wife and myself. A lot of my shipmates and friends were of the same age and in similar situations, but some of them also had children. One of my closest friends, Chris had two young daughters. I didn’t fully understand what it was like for him as we left the pier for our patrols. Yes, we were all leaving family behind, but watching him see his little girls fade away in the distance and understanding what he felt was foreign to me.
“It was hard to be away from my daughters,” Chris said. “Back then we didn’t have FaceTime and all the technology that they have now, but I made sure to call and talk to them every time we pulled into port. It was really expensive and we could only talk for a few minutes, but it was definitely worth it.”
Fast-forward to August 2017. I’m working for the state of California, also serving as a Coast Guard Reservist, my son is six months old, and I’m using the last portion of family leave to help my wife transition back to full-time employment. A day before I’m scheduled to return to work, Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast and I’m immediately sent on involuntary orders to Houston, Texas, to assist with Coast Guard emergency response efforts. That was the first time I spent more than one night away from my son. Even though it was only for two weeks, it was a new experience for me … and I didn’t like it. I immediately thought of my friend Chris and what he went through every time we deployed.
“I think something that helped with the stress was that my daughters would color pictures and write notes for me and mail them during the patrols,” said Chris. “I always looked forward to seeing what they would send. They would also send me stuff to color and to fill out and send back to them.”
Since then, I’ve been sent to multiple responses, most of them longer than the first. It’s what we signed up for, right? But what doesn’t seem to change with each deployment is the unease of leaving family. Technology has advanced so much since my underway days with the use of video chat, fast internet (yes, we were using slower-than-dial-up connectivity on the ship), and smart phones; but all-in-all, those are just temporary supplements that help fill the gap of physical connection. In other words, when I’m away, the need to hold my son grows stronger as days pass.
My experience of being away from my son is solely through the service, but there are many jobs outside of the military that require time away from family, so those who do have to separate themselves for their careers can empathize with service members on various levels. My advice to new fathers is; wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, do everything you can to maintain that father-child bond.
Chris imparted to me the following advice: “Take the time when you are in port to call home, talk to your kids about what they are doing, and how they are doing. Nowadays with technology, you can FaceTime and really see each other.”
So, take a moment and appreciate the connection with your kids, whether you are home or away, active duty or civilian, or separated by COVID-19 restrictions. No matter what, you’ll always be a dad, and separation is only temporary. Happy Father’s Day!