CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Much of their lives, their children have had to deal with ins and outs of their fathers’ deployments—the pronounced absences— and as a result they have had much different upbringings than most of their school-aged peers. That is why the military set time aside to honor their resilience, marking April as the Month of the Military Child, an annual celebration that began with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s proclamation in 1986. Yet, 30 days cannot begin to encapsulate what a military child goes through.
One of the smaller National Guards organizationally, the Cowboy State has by no means shied away from its duty to defend, ready to take its turn in the “sandbox.” The Wyoming Army National Guard valiantly has kept up with the intense pace of deployments, and kids, who are behind the scenes, a large part of it.
The war in Afghanistan is nearing two decades old, and the heat has turned up more than a few times in Iraq and elsewhere around Southwest Asia. By the peak of the two conflicts in 2011, according to the Rand Corporation, nearly 1.5 million U.S. Army troops had left life on the block to fight in those wars, their families keeping the home fires burning, mostly mothers doing the job of two parents.
Kaitlin Castle was just starting kindergarten when her dad deployed the first time. Now she’s a senior at Cheyenne East High School, and Maj. Cory Castle will deploy with the 115th Field Artillery Brigade in July.
Kaitlin describes military kids as dandelions. “We adapt easily and can survive anywhere; we can stand ready to go anywhere and take on new adventures and make many new friends. When you move, you say goodbye to the ones you love and you make new friends. We know that experiencing the sadness of someday having to say goodbye is still worth more than never having that friend at all. We also never take anything for granted; you never know when your mom or dad is on the battlefield and it’s their time to go. You have to spend as much time with your family as possible and cherish every moment you have with them.”
Stephanie, Kaitlin’s mom, is one of those parents who has taken on dual status with the help of a vast support network of family and friends. “As with the first deployment we are making sure we spent a lot of time together as a family – vacations, high school activities, and church,” she said. “We know that communication before and during the deployment is important. So, we continually talk about Cory being gone and how we will get through it.
“We are ensuring he can be a part of as many of her (senior year) activities with the use of social media, and a live high school sports app. Even with technology we will send letters and care packages. With Kaitlin more aware of what a deployment means, compared to when she was in kindergarten, we believe that love, support, communication, honesty and openness will ensure a successful deployment on the home front.”
Kaitlin was going into kindergarten and was 5 when Maj. Castle left the first time. “And it was a tough year for me to get through. My dad and I would write to each other every week and we sent him Christmas and birthday gifts. When I was that young I didn’t know what my dad was going through; I didn’t know that he was getting shot at, and he might not come home or not. My mom and I just had to push through it together.”
During that time at Snowy Range Academy, a charter school in Laramie, Kaitlin’s kindergarten class, under the direction of teacher and family friend Dana Wilson, collected school supplies and put together care packages for then Staff Sgt. Castle and a handful of soldiers who bonded on a security team.
For Kaitlin, the upcoming separation is less than ideal because of the timing. “I think it is a little easier on me because this time I know what he is going through,” she said. “This is also going to be my senior year which is hard to take in because he is going to miss all my senior nights, soccer and basketball games, and Christmas. If I sign for a college he is going to miss that as well. My dad will be back for my graduation which means a lot to me.”
Kaitlin’s thoughts were squarely focused on the realities of the military. Although, it may not always come up in conversations for people in uniform, the fact remains, going to war is part of the job. And her advice to other military children reflected that. “I would tell children to spend as much time at they can with their parents because you never know when it could be their time to deploy,” she said. “Make sure you keep some sort of scrapbook or a calendar to count down the days till they deploy and for when they will come home. Also make sure you write to your mom or dad often and find other means to keep in touch.”
Hunter Messamer was 15 months old and doesn’t remember anything about when his dad left the first time. The second time, he was 7. Now, he’s 14, and being home schooled in eighth grade by his mom. And meanwhile, Capt. Kevin Messamer, with two deployments under his belt, stands ready in case he’s needed.
Hunter said military kids are “like rhinos because we’re tough,” adding, “I think we’re mentally tougher than other kids since we have more than likely faced more adversity and loneliness.”
Jamie Messamer, Hunter’s mom said, “(Kevin) remembers me crying a lot. In preparing, there was not a lot to go off of. It’s not until we were in that moment. He missed playing sports with Hunter, scouting for elk, the first day of junior high. We just rolled with the punches. The deployment was a year and half to Iraq, and then a year to Kuwait. Hunter was 7. The first time we ended moving in with our in-laws and that was a huge help, but the internet had a bad connection, so we didn’t Skype a lot. The second deployment was better, we Skyped almost daily. And we had a good support group in Sheridan.”
Hunter said, “I do not remember any of the first deployment, but my mom has shared many memories with me. I remember parts of the second deployment. I remember Skyping with my dad, and when we traveled to Casper for his welcome home ceremony. That was a very exciting time.”
Hunter’s father, Capt. Messamer, works at the 84th Civil Support Team as the unit’s medical operations officer. He deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2009, a tour which lasted a year. Before that, he spent 18 months in Iraq in 2005.
Feelings like Hunter’s come with the territory for military children, but he said this time around he admitted that it doesn’t get easier. “I would face more challenges if he deployed again because I’m older,” Hunter said. “Since I was pretty little when my dad deployed the other two times, I missed him, but it was harder on my mom having to raise us without him.”
In the effort to keep life normal, if that was at all possible, Hunter said, that “during the first deployment my mom made a scrapbook and lots of videos. I have a few faint memories of his second deployment. I remember missing him. My mom and I set up a calendar and counted down every day until he got home. I also wrote letters to him every month and sent pictures and crafts that we made in school.”
Hunter said that if he had a friend whose dad or mom was deploying the first time, he would help as he could. “I would find out ways to take their mind off of the deployment, and pray for safety for their mom or dad.”
Reagan Johnson’s father deployed in 2012 for 11 months, when she was 6, and now, six years later, Capt. Daniel Johnson plans to depart in July with the 115th Field Artillery Brigade for a year-long tour starting in July.
Reagan described her embattled peers, pointing to sometimes fragile emotions. “Military children are sad, angry, and always missing their parent,” she said. “We have to learn how to persevere while our dad is gone and make the best of it.”
For Reagan, when Capt. Johnson deployed to Bahrain in 2013, she said, “I was 6-years old the first time that my dad deployed and I remember making a poster, with a picture of my dad on it, a clock set to the time of where he was, and a paper chain link with the months dad was deployed for. I went to counseling, talked about it with my mom, and made him presents that we sent monthly. It also helped me to mark the days on the calendar until he came home.”
And yet, Reagan takes lessons from that first time, some which she can apply to this next deployment. “I think it will be easier because I know how it feels, and how hard it is but eventually he will come home. At the same time it will be harder because I now have two younger brothers growing up without Dad at home and not knowing the next time they’ll see him,” she said.
Reagan’s mom, Becky said, “We had a daddy wall, pictures of Daniel and a countdown calendar with a clock set to daddy time. She had a picture of her dad that the school thought was distracting. Then we got her a locket which she wore instead during the deployment. We called and sent care packages and she talked a lot to her counselor at school. This second time, I’ll miss him. He’s my best friend. It may be harder. Our middle son was 2. Now he’s 8. Plus, we had a post-deployment kiddo so now there are three kiddos to take care of instead of two. It will be 11 months this time.”
Finally, Reagan reiterated some of the same sentiments of other military kids. “It’s going to be hard, but try to think about the people your parent is helping, and you have your family and friends there, and you can send them stuff like letters and presents, and you can also Skype,” she said. “Also, there are other kids going through this, not just you. So you can also talk to them as well.”
The children’s descriptions about their military peers speaks to challenges that don’t come to the fore as much as a soldier’s or airman’s deeds on the battlefield, and the hardships they must endure. For military children, enduring the absence of a parent takes monumental courage.