ORLEANS, Mass. — When his third daughter was born, Lt. Col. Mike Styskal was deployed in Afghanistan and his twin daughters were only 16 months old.
Kate Styskal lived as a single mother for the next six months, until Mike returned from duty to meet his third child, Maggie.
"It's hard," Kate said Tuesday at a forum on military families and troops returning home held by the Cape Cod Hospital Auxiliary at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans.
"Families and children are the hidden faces of huge sacrifice," she said.
Government and community support efforts often focus on the war veteran returning from combat with possible post-traumatic stress or physical injuries.
But spouses who have been left alone to juggle work, the household, bills and child care don't get much attention, forum participants noted. Parents and siblings of young veterans also live with constant worry while their loved one is deployed. And they may pay the ultimate sacrifice.
Kate Styskal, who had a career in politics before marrying in 2002, was unprepared to become the wife of a U.S. Marine.
Mike Styskal was deployed eight weeks after their wedding for a year of duty that was extended, she said. This was followed by several more deployments in Afghanistan.
They now live in Newport, R.I., where Mike is attending the U.S. Naval War College. It will be the sixth state the Styskals have called home in 12 years, Kate said.
During the last three deployments, they have lived on military bases, she said.
In these family neighborhoods, seeing a dark-colored, four-door sedan come down the road would be a "horrific sight," she said, because it could mean a death notification was on its way. "You could just hear a pin drop."
Yarmouth Deputy Police Chief Steven Xiarhos, whose son Nicholas was killed in action in 2009, brought many in the audience to tears as he described seeing Marines come into the room at the Yarmouth police station to tell him of his son's death.
"I just kind of went black," he said.
But then he collected himself and drove to his house to deliver the news to his wife and three other children.
At the door, he said, he remembered peeking in and seeing them all happy and relaxed.
"It was just beautiful, and I stopped and looked, because I knew it would never be the same again," Xiarhos said.
"It's a horrible price to pay, but we're proud," he added. "The pride kind of outweighs the sadness most of the time."
Xiarhos said his family now works to help those returning from combat. "Did you know 23 veterans kill themselves every day?" he said.
Many of those who served beside his son have subsequently ended their own lives, he added.
Carol Marsh, events coordinator for the hospital auxiliary, said this event was meant to bring awareness and community understanding about veterans and their family members.
The event was moderated by Larry Minear, of Orleans, whose book "Through Veterans' Eyes" includes hundreds of stories told by veterans. Minear said he interviewed veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and quoted from some of the 1,000 stories by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans kept at the U.S. Library of Congress.
He said each story provided a new perspective.
Minear's background is as a researcher on international conflicts with aid workers, soldiers and local populations in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean. He served as director of the Humanitarianism and War Project at Brown University and then at Tufts.
He has written, co-written, or edited 14 books, In 2006 he became interested in talking with veterans returning from war to the small town of Bradford, Vt., where he vacationed, he said.