Military dads balance service to country with love of family
Meeting his daughter, Quinn, for the first time, Capt. Kevin McKay returns from a six-month deployment with the 117th Air Control Squadron. His wife, Ariel, gave birth March 21, 2014. Quinn's poster says it all, "Hurry Daddy, I've been waiting my whole life to meet you!"
WICHITA FALLS, Texas — “One team, one fight.” This phrase, often heard around the military, could be equally applied to the challenge of being a loving father with a military career.
About 60 percent of enlisted personnel and 70 percent of officers in the military are married and about 50 percent have children.
While some civilian jobs require travel, few require it with the frequency and length of time as being in the military.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Air National Guard Major Rusty Brinkley, “While I’m able to provide for them and do something that I have wanted to do since growing up, the trips away are the most difficult part.”
Brinkley, formerly of Burkburnett, now stationed at Tyndall AFB in Panama City, Florida, said he estimates he has been on tours of duty away from his wife, Tia, for about 45 percent of their 11 year marriage.
Brinkley recalls one of the most difficult times was about two years ago on his longest tour away, five months, while Tia and daughter, Lillian, now 4, stayed back at Kadena AFB, Okinawa, Japan.
Only after returning home to his family did his wife tell him how Lillian would often cry herself to sleep missing daddy. “She didn’t tell me until I got back. I couldn’t have done my job if I knew,” Brinkley said.
All of the fathers said technology such as Skype and FaceTime is important in keeping in contact with the family.
Air Force Maj. Clifford “Chibby” Chapman, 89th Flying Training Squadron, at Sheppard, said, “Once they see you, they really stop worrying. They get into LEGOS or whatever they’re doing while knowing that Dad is safe, just far away.”
Chapman said Sheppard is a great place for families because, as a training environment, children can come see what dad does at work.
“They can fly the simulator trainers and pretend that dad plays advanced video games at work, which he kind of does. Kids can even get next to the action with a flight line tour. They can touch the airplanes and can see the cockpit controls up close.
Chapman said his youngest son asks if he can see him waving at him in the sky. “I tell him I was looking for him and will always wave back. So they wave at every plane they see.”
Army Capt. Patrick McMillen was stationed in Afghanistan just two months after getting married. He said he and his wife used Skype and messaging, but would still write and mail at least one letter a week. Sometimes if his 4-month-old son, Robert, gets fussy, McMillen said his wife will FaceTime him at work and Robert will calm down when he sees and hears his dad.
McMillen said he tries to keep work and home life as separate as possible.
“When I’m at home, I try to be there and not worry about work, which as a soldier is sometimes very difficult to do. On the other hand while at work I do my best to focus on the job while still thinking of my family and always wondering how they are doing.”
Brinkley said communication is the most important thing when away from home.
“The emotional support needs to be there. It’s great that we have the tools at our disposal to do that. My daughter lives and breathes FaceTime,” he said. At a bare minimum, Brinkley said he calls to say good night and sometimes sings Lillian a lullaby.
Returning from a tour of duty, especially from a combat zone, can be a rough transition for military dads.
Air Force Major Christopher Waddell, formerly of Petrolia and Burkburnett, said the Air Force has excellent programs to help personnel decompress when they come back from duty. He said he gets at least two weeks at home after a deployment. Waddell said it has a twofold benefit because the military can “keep eyes on you” to make sure there are no medical issues and the serviceman gets uninterrupted time with his family.
“Keeping family first is of upmost importance. The family cannot be neglected. Young kids don’t understand why daddy or mommy has to go away, so you have to ensure that it’s not for long,” Brinkley said.
Chapman said, “At home, you truly appreciate the minutes you spend with your kids. You don’t take it for granted anymore, especially when you see how fast they grow up. Every minute is precious.”
The military life can no doubt be a challenge for everyone in the family, but there are some benefits, Waddell said.
Waddell is moving with his wife, Lauren, and 15-month-old daughter, Rachel, to his new station at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
After moving to Burkburnett from Petrolia, Waddell said he was friends with many children from Sheppard AFB.
He found military kids to be well-adjusted and able to handle tough situations.
“I was a local and for me change was hard. But the military kids seemed to adapt better,” Waddell said.
Waddell said one of his most difficult times handling work and family was when he found out his wife was three weeks pregnant back in Virginia while he was on a six-month stay in Honduras. His wife told him the news on the phone.
“I was floored. I am almost glad she couldn’t see my face because all the right words came out, but I was terrified. There was uncertainty — joy and fear at the same time. You want to protect them and do right by them. You’re joyful to bring life into the world, but you want to provide for and protect them,” Waddell said.
Waddell experienced a large part of his wife’s pregnancy through email, texts and pictures of sonograms send by phone.
“I couldn’t comfort her, I wanted to be there,” Waddell said.
While military and civilian career lives may be very different, the role of being a father is still the same.
“Being a dad, not just a father, means that you are the male role model for that child. You are an example of how to treat women and how to treat people,” Brinkley said. “You are the example by which a daughter should use when she finds a mate of her own. You’re the spiritual leader of the house and the completion of the mom/dad unit.”
Waddell said for him, “being a father means loving someone more than you could ever love yourself. You are forever changed. You have the responsibility to pass on your knowledge, culture and experiences, but also ensure your child has the freedom to become their own person.”