FARMINGTON, Mo. • While a company of Missouri National Guard combat engineers were in Afghanistan, resting for the next risky mission, some of their family members came to an armory here festooned to celebrate the Christmas season without them.
Santa arrived with coloring books, googly-eye glasses and toy horses. Boxes of Huggies diapers rested under an artificial tree, near stacks of little red megaphones with “My Dad is serving in Afghanistan” printed on the side.
The gathering unfolded in the same space where, in normal times, many of the citizen soldiers of the 1138th Engineer Company do drills one weekend a month. The unit is in the middle of a nine-month tour near the birthplace of the Taliban.
Leaders of the Family Readiness Group event wanted to make life easier for about 70 children, mothers and spouses in attendance in hopes it would help the Guardsmen focus on the task of finding roadside bombs downrange.
“We want to bring a little joy into your life today,” Dan Armour, who helped coordinate the Dec. 16 event, told them.
For families of the deployed, every day is about making accommodations for an absent loved one. Once easy trips to the grocery store or around the block with the dogs become a hassle with kids in tow.
But around the holidays, those home front burdens are even heavier. And even kind gestures of others — like the holiday party — can feel, at best, like the next best thing.
“I am not really into the holidays this year,” said Lisa Dielschneider, 33, of Ste. Genevieve, who attended the party. A holiday pin on her blouse read “Joy,” but her face did not.
“I tried to do Thanksgiving, but I cried my eyes out.”
She and her husband, Spc. Brandon Dielschneider, a mechanic, married earlier this year. Their 3-month-old daughter was born shortly after the deployment began. Moments after tiny Kimber, named after a firearms manufacturer, came into the world, the doctor held her up and congratulated the father, who watched the scene on a computer via Skype 10 time zones away.
It was another next-best moment.
“There are people who say I know how you feel and they don’t,” the mother said. “I’ve never done anything like this by myself.”
Not to mention what’s at stake. To get inside the bare-bones armory, near all the gifts, cookies and iced tea, the families walked through a hallway with three pictures of Guardsmen from the area who were killed in recent deployments.
HUNDREDS GO OVERSEAS
This time, the 1138th sent 93 men overseas. The soldiers, who primarily hail from southeast Missouri and the St. Louis region, left behind families, jobs and school to deploy. For some, the Guard is their only employment. The youngest soldier is 18, the oldest is 52. Five are on their third deployment.
The Missouri National Guard, home to about 11,500 soldiers and airmen, typically responds to natural disasters. But since 9/11, Guard units across the country accounted for 20 percent of 4.3 million deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense.
“They know they are signing up for the wars,” Missouri Guard Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner said of his troops in a telephone interview.
More than 1,000 Missouri Guardsmen are on deck to deploy in 2013 and 2014. Currently there are 400 serving in Afghanistan and Kuwait, doing aviation support and route clearance.
The 1138th is stationed at Forward Operating Base Frontenac, near Kandahar. It’s the latest risky mission for the Missouri Guard, which has lost 12 soldiers to war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guard would provide no count of the injured.
The 1138th lost two men doing route clearance missions in Iraq. This time around, one soldier from the company has come home, Sgt. 1st Class Randy Hargis, of Pacific, who was hit by a bomb blast and is recovering in Texas.
Each soldier seems to have a different policy about what news to share with family.
“We had an agreement whenever he left to not tell me any of the bad stuff and that anything bad that he has there, he is to leave there when he comes home,” Michelle Reeves, said of her husband, Sgt. John Reeves, 44, of Jackson. “I am sure he sees plenty.”
Kevin Phillips, whose son, Spc. Patrick Phillips, 23, is deployed, said everybody has war stories, but he doesn’t want to dwell.
“His mom definitely tries not to think what the boys will get into over there, especially on the holiday,” he said. “I try not to think about him being in harm’s way because I know what can happen. But it’s always there. And I am always thinking about it.”
The elder Phillips, also in the Guard, willis set to deploy in 2014 for the fourth time since 1991.
“He wanted to be a combat engineer like his dad,” said Kevin Phillips, 45, who runs operations at the armory in Festus. “He’s a man doing his part for his nation.”
Interviewed via Skype, Patrick Phillips said the deployment is going well. Between missions, he visits with his fiancée, to whom he recently sent an engagement ring in the mail.
He said he most misses the freedom to go where he wants, when he wants — especially for small things.
“I miss just being able to jump into my truck and go to Taco Bell,” he said.
This will be his first Christmas away from home.
Many service members want to deploy before the war is over. The longest war in U.S. history involving combat troops, it is expected to wind down at the end of 2014.
“We do not have difficulty filling slots for deploying units,” Maj. Gen. Danner said.
First Lt. Richard Branson, 27, of Ballwin, put his job as a physical education teacher and assistant football coach at McCluer North High School on hold to go. His previous Guard work included cleaning up after floods. This is his first deployment to war.
“That’s what makes him alive is doing these things,” said his mother, Eadie Branson, of Jefferson County.
His wife, Amber Branson, also had a positive view on the deployment and her husband’s desire to be in the military.
“I have and will continue to support his dreams,” Amber Branson, who recently finished a graduate degree at St. Louis University, wrote in an email.
READY FOR RETURN♠
Kimberly Vails exchanged Army wedding vows and the whole bit. She’s appreciative — yet stressed.
“I don’t have to like it, but I have to support it,” said Vails, 41, of Jackson, holding a child on her lap at the Christmas party. She and her husband, Sgt. Jason Vails, visit as much as they can. She even has recordings of him reading “The Night Before Christmas” for the blended family of five children.
Still, she said, the hardest part of the deployment is feeling like a single parent.
“You put that fake smile on all day, you know,” she said.
Most post-9/11 vets say the public doesn’t understand the problems for the military and their families, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center report.
The gap between military personnel and the general population seems to be broadening, the report says. Only 0.5 percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty during the past decade. Just 33 percent of people ages 18-29 said they have an immediate family member who served in the military.
Vails said even her 21-year-old son questioned the war.
“Well, right now, you know,” she said she told him, “that’s what’s paying the bills.”
Income from the deployment bumped Tianna Simmons’ family of four off food stamps. Her husband, Spc. Anthony Simmons, usually works the line at a cereal plant in Perryville.
Tianna Simmons, 24, still has her hands full, but she said her husband realized in Afghanistan how much he loved herbeing in Afghanistan. They plan to renew their wedding vows when he gets back and take the honeymoon they never had. Maybe Branson, perhaps Florida.
Now, midway through the current deployment, they are half way there.
“I want to see the ocean,” she said. “I’ve never seen the ocean.”
Other soldiers won’t get off as easy.
Sgt. Michael O’Callaghan, originally from Ireland, has baby-sitting in his future. Lots of it. A new fence and sump pump also have O’Callaghan’s name on it, said his wife, Leanne.
She has been juggling a full load at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the children and two dogs, including a 120-pounder. She can’t wait until her husband comes home to south St. Louis this spring so she can be gone all day.
“He’s going to be shocked,” she said, laughing. “The war is here. That’s nothing. Three kids 5 and under — it’s them against me.”