Paper Chains The Emotional Ride Into The Life Of A Military Family

Emma Whitehead

Being in the military takes strength and sacrifice. A willingness to leave everything behind at any given moment. Your friends and family, you have to be willing to leave them, sometimes for long periods of time. You have to be strong enough to miss out on milestones in your family’s life.

This Photo was taken when I went to work with my dad at Fort Custer. Fort Custer is an Army National Guard base. My name is Emma Whitehead and my dad had to do just that, countless times.

My dad’s first deployment was to Germany and he lived there for 3 years, from 1988 to 1991. Then from Germany he was deployed to the Gulf War. He served there for about 6 months. While he was gone, his grandma, who he was very close to, passed away.  He didn’t find out until a week after she passed away and missed her funeral. That was extremely hard on my dad.
The next place my dad was deployed to was Bosnia for 8 months. That was really hard on my mom. She had to do everything on her own, but she stayed strong through it all. It was also really scary because that’s when 9/11 happened and no one knew what was going on. It was really hard to get ahold of my dad because the military started cutting off out of bound communications for security reasons.
Then, in 2006, my dad was deployed to Korea for a month.  In 2007, he was deployed to Korea again for another month. Later that year, in 2007 when I was in third grade, my dad was deployed yet again, except this time it was to Iraq for a year.
That was when things really took a turn. He went through many hardships while he was away. Many soldiers do. They have to see things no one should ever have to see and go through things no one should have to go through. When my dad finally came back, I knew he wasn’t the same. Something had changed in him and I could see that when I first saw him. I saw that light that burned so brightly in his eyes was extinguished and it pained me to see that. He doesn’t talk to me about the things he’s seen there. I guess it’s too painful for him to bring back up.  
It isn’t just hard for the soldier. No one really thinks about how this all affects the children. Children are the best judges of character. They have a better ability to tell when something’s wrong through just sensing emotions. The child has to see their loved one in pain and has to grow up without their family member being there for them all the time.
When my dad left for Iraq, my sister and I were at the points in our lives where we really needed a father. I realize that there are some kids out there who are missing a father completely and that’s really hard, but it was difficult for us too because we did have a dad and we expected him to be there for us. It was tough with him not being able to be there. We missed out on having a dad there for special events such as father daughter dances, first days of school, birthdays and holidays. My dad missed my first day of middle school and my sister’s first day of kindergarten.  
Once the parent or other family member comes home, the child has to deal with the after effects too. Being in the military can take its toll on marriages as well, which affects the child. Divorce rates go up significantly for spouses in the military. I remember when my dad got back from Iraq, he was dealing with a lot of physical and mental trauma from the war and it was hard on my mom because he wasn’t himself.  She could see that, but he didn’t want to talk about anything that happened over there.
My family always tried to make the best of every situation. We would spend time with my dad on holidays over Skype for a few minutes and we would make daily voice diaries on tapes and send them to him in the mail. Whenever my dad was home he would always read us books at night, that was our special thing. So before he would leave he would record his voice reading our favorite books. At night we could listen to the recording and follow along in the book.
When my dad was leaving for Iraq, he got my sister and I each a teddy bear with a voice recording of him in it. I also remember whenever my dad would leave, my sister and I would make these paper chains. Each link represented the amount of days he’d be gone for and everyday we would take one link off until he came home. It gave us something to look forward to everyday. Being so young, it gave us an understanding that, yes, our dad is gone, but he is coming home.
My dad is home safe now, but the long lasting effects of war are still there. As we sat there in the living room looking through an old box of my dad’s military memorabilia, I could see how hard it was for him to go through those painful memories, to go back in time and relive them. It pained me to see him have to feel those moments again, but I knew it was good for him. He is the strongest man I know. He’s my hero and I am proud to be his daughter.
This was a drawing I made for my dad. It features a soldier and his daughter holding hands and that represented my father and I.  Graphic Credit / Emma Whitehead