By Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
Special to GUIDON
Military life is not easy. The men and women who serve in our armed forces protect our freedoms and way of life. They make tremendous sacrifices, along with their families, in service to our country.
Service members often have to endure times of separation from their loved ones, from a few days to a year. While the military member is away, the family is left to go on facing each day without their mother or father present. This can make military spouses often feel like single moms or dads.
Every family faces numerous challenges no matter where they are from, however, military families face unique challenges that only a small group has experienced. They move frequently, often struggle to find spouse employment and can have difficulty finding the best schools and child care for their children.
All of this change can be difficult to adapt to, especially for young children. After we moved to California in July 2014, my daughter asked if we could go back to Germany. That’s where she started school and where her young brain started to memorize things. For her, Germany was home. But the Air Force needed me in California, so we packed all of our things, boarded a plane and made the 5,643-mile trip to the Golden State. It took her a few years to feel comfortable, and she often tells me that she doesn’t want to move again.
For 15 years, I’ve served in the United States Air Force with assignments in California, Nebraska, Europe and Asia. One of the most difficult aspects of my career has been overcoming the challenges of deployment.
My last deployment came in September 2015. I remember hugging my wife before walking out the door, one day before our son’s third birthday. I would miss much more on that deployment including Thanksgiving, Christmas, our daughter’s eighth birthday and our 11th wedding anniversary.
While my wife and children celebrated those special days, I was more than 7,000 miles away. Being away from your loved ones is incredibly challenging. As a father, I want to be there to help my children with their homework, hug them before they go to bed and be there as they achieve every milestone. As a husband, I want to hold my wife after a hard day, gaze into her dark brown eyes and get lost in her smile.
On my first deployment in 2006, the primary means of communication I used to keep in touch with my family were phone calls, email and letters. Thanks to advancements in technology nearly 10 years later, I was able to use services like Skype and FaceTime to video chat with my beautiful wife and children.
Shortly after arriving at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, I wrote the time difference between Qatar and California on a piece of paper and hung that paper on my wall. I developed a schedule with the best days and times for my family and me to communicate. This often meant calling them before they left for school in the morning or late at night before they went to bed.
While nothing can replace the feeling of actually being with your wife and children, witnessing their smiles up close and enjoying their presence, technology enabled me to be as close to them as possible. That technology also helped me comfort my children when they grew lonely, stressed or upset.
Any time my daughter or son became upset because they missed me, I created a silly video with my iPhone and sent it to them.
One time, before having breakfast with a four-star general, I created one of those videos. I needed help figuring out what cereal I should eat. Who better to ask than my little girl?
“Hey Amani, it’s breakfast time and I have too many options here and I need your help,” I said. “What cereal should I eat? Apple Jacks? Frosted Flakes? Cheerios?”
She later told me after viewing the video that she chose Apple Jacks. I never told her I went with what I thought was the healthier option, Cheerios. The video made her smile and maybe for a moment, forget about how much she missed me.
I continued making videos throughout my deployment. I made videos after working out, a couple showcasing how I was mailing my children letters and even one while riding the shuttle bus on my way to work.
The videos were just one way my family and I were able to stay connected during our slightly more than six-month separation. We also took advantage of phone calls, emails, letters and social media to stay in touch.
I’m so thankful for this technology, because my family is the most important thing to me in the whole world. I have to be able to speak to them, hear about their day, learn about their challenges and share my own. Technology made that possible. That same technology helped me stay focused on whatever I had to do for the mission, because I knew my family was OK.
At some point in almost everyone’s military career, they will be called upon to leave their family, travel to some far-off land and perform the mission they’ve been trained to do. I encourage every service member to find their own unique way to stay close to their loved ones during that difficult time, and technology can help.
You can use video chat services like I did to read your child’s favorite bedtime story, share how your day was and hear all about the great things your family is doing at home. You can take advantage of instant messaging services and texting over WiFi to send and receive messages in real time. And you can still take a pen, a piece of paper, write a heartfelt letter and mail it to your family. Watching the joy that covers their faces later on a video chat is priceless.
Technology enabled me to do so many things to ease the burden of deployment, and it could do the same for you.