'It's hard having someone deployed' at Christmas

By AMANDA DOLASINSKI | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 23, 2017

Somewhere at an austere outpost in Afghanistan, 1st Sgt. Adam Breeding will be reaching for Christmas cookies in a plastic bag.

The cookies will be at least two weeks old, so his wife, Heather Breeding, back home in North Carolina, hopes the slice of bread she packed with them held in the moisture. She and a few other wives, girlfriends and mothers of soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team baked and shipped the cookies in early December so they’d arrive in Afghanistan by Christmas.

It’s not how the Breeding family hoped to spend the holiday this year. But when the Army called on the 82nd Airborne Division to deploy to Afghanistan in June, the family, like thousands of other Army families, did their best to make Christmas special.

“They can have a little taste of home for the holidays,” Heather said, patting tape down on shipping boxes. “Christmas cookies is a big thing. We thought it’d be a little nice touch of home, and, trust me, they are going to appreciate it.”

The women sealed boxes of 2,500 cookies headed to Afghanistan in a battalion building on Fort Bragg, where framed Army posters line the walls. Hanging in the hallway is a black flag with the 82nd Airborne Division’s logo. The flag reads, "Mess with the best, die like the rest.''

Heather, who has grown accustomed to military life during her 10-year marriage, said she is proud of her husband’s service. She hopes Americans recognize not only the service of all military members, but the sacrifices their families make, as well.

“I just don’t want people to take for granted what they have here because people are...,” she said, trailing off while her daughters play behind her. She pauses as she thinks.

“We are sending our guys cookies to eat out of a bag,” she said. “It’s difficult.”

In a war that’s stretched for 16 years, it’s easy for Americans to forget that service members are still in harm's way. But for military families — including the thousands stationed at Fort Bragg — that is a daily reality.

In recent years, the U.S. military has reduced the combat role of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but service members continue to be involved in those countries' security affairs, training partner forces to fight against insurgents.

The 1st Brigade paratroopers in Afghanistan are part of a force of thousands who deployed amid a small troop surge earlier this year. Some of the soldiers deployed on relatively short notice in September.

The deployments are part of a steady stream of warfighters to and from Afghanistan and other combat areas, such as Iraq and Syria.

Fort Bragg, home to roughly 10 percent of the Army, often supplies those troops, which can put added pressure on local families.

About 60 percent of all Army families are married with children, according to the Department of Defense. On average, a military family has two children, age 5 or younger.

Heather was 19 and living in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, when mutual friends introduced her to Adam, an enlisted soldier in a Ranger battalion based at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Not long after the couple married, he left for the first of what would become 14 deployments. Unlike his current deployment with the 82nd Airborne Division, deployments with Ranger battalions are shorter, averaging three to four months.

Nonetheless, Heather was young, pregnant and alone at home while her husband was in combat in a place he couldn’t reveal to her.

“That was hard,” she said, recalling the first deployment. “I’m only 19. He’s gone. I don’t know what to do. I have this house by myself. What am I going to do?”

Over the next seven years, the family would grow to two daughters, and Adam would continue his grueling training and deployment schedule.

In June, about 1,500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team deployed to Afghanistan. A few months later, the Pentagon announced 2,200 soldiers, including 1,200 troops from 1st Brigade Combat Team, would be deploying.

The division, which is part of the nation’s rapidly deploying Global Response Force, is often in high-demand by combatant commanders around the world.

The troops have a variety of missions, tasked with training, advising and assisting Afghan partners and providing security for other U.S. forces in the country.

Adam always managed to be home for Christmas. But this year, he deployed and the family was forced to celebrate Christmas geographically separated.

It’s the girls’ first Christmas without their dad, who also has a son who lives in Florida.

Heather and other members of the Family Readiness Group for soldiers in the brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, mailed a Christmas tree to Afghanistan. It’s small, but the soldiers decorated it and snapped pictures with it to send home.

At her home, Heather had to pull decorations from storage in the attic, haul a tree home stuffed in the back of her car, take the girls to meet Santa and shop for gifts by herself.

If the internet connection was strong enough, Heather said, she would FaceTime her husband so he could watch the girls open their gifts Christmas morning.

Heather said she explained to the girls that their father had to leave for work, but didn’t delve into the details.

At first, 8-year-old Zoe was upset and refused to talk to him on video chats. Rylie, her 7-year-old sister, cried for her dad every day.

Adam is an involved father who always puts his kids first, so his absence has been difficult, Heather said.

Heather's family lives out of state, so she has taken on a single-parent role for nine months. She calls on a neighbor when she needs help.

The pressure can get to her, Heather said.

She starts her day at 7 a.m. and is on the move until the girls go to bed at 9 p.m.

She said she had to resign her job in Apex so she could spend time with her daughters, who desperately missed their father.

“I have to do homework (with the girls). I have to make sure they’re at cheer on time. I have to make sure they have full bellies,” she said. “It’s just hard. I’ll have good days and I’ll have bad days. I’m all by myself. I have to be there 24/7 for them and I want to. I’m their parent, it’s just sometimes having a break helps.”

The good days, she said, are when the girls celebrate high marks on report cards and compete in cheer meets.

The bad days are when Heather loses it and yells at the girls, then cries because she feels horrible for yelling.

“I’ll talk to Adam, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I want you home,’ ” she said. “And there’s days where he’s like, ‘I just really miss you guys and I’m having a bad day and I want to talk to you when I want to talk to you, not when the internet’s going to allow me to.’ ”

The stress intensified in August, when two soldiers in the brigade were killed when their patrol vehicle was struck by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Breeding called home to mourn with his wife.

He sent her a picture from the memorial service, where he stood between portraits of Sgt. Jonathon Hunter and Spc. Christopher Harris, saluting the fallen soldiers.

At home, Heather stayed glued to her phone, waiting for her husband to call. She said she talked to him nearly every day, but it was always at a different time.

On Thanksgiving, her friends pointed out that she spent more time checking her phone than chatting with them.

“It’s not fair sometimes,” she said. “People get to go on … their biggest worry is who’s going to win the college football championship. I’m over here worried that my husband’s not going to come home.”

On a recent weeknight, Heather and the girls put the Christmas decorations up around the living room. Her husband’s Christmas stocking, with an Atlanta Braves theme, was the first on the mantle.

“If it was just me, I probably wouldn’t even decorate because it’s not going to feel like Christmas without him here,” Heather said. “I do it because I know the girls want to."

That meant pulling down Christmas decorations from the attic, unpacking them and displaying them around the house. It may seem simple, but it took hours.

Zoe wrote a letter to her dad that would be mailed to him.

"Dear Hero," she wrote. "I hope you have a great Christmas. I wish you were here for Christmas, but you're not. I miss you, daddy. I really want you to be here with us and make cookies and decorate the tree with us. I miss you, daddy."

She doodled a picture of a Christmas tree — with the airborne wings she’s used to seeing on her dad’s uniform.

Breeding is expected to return in March. By that time, he’ll have missed Independence Day, Veterans Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, countless school programs, cheerleading competitions and the birthdays of his son, daughters and wife.

But it’s everything in between Heather thinks about.

“Honestly, I’m hoping my youngest one doesn’t lose a tooth before he comes home,” she said. “The hardest thing is going through life without your best friend there beside you to go through all the happiness to be there for the girls together.”

She catalogs as much as she can through photographs and rehashes accomplishments in phone calls.

“So it’s been very hard,” she said. “There’s been lots of tears. But there’s been lots of happiness. We get by as best as we can, but there’s times it’s just too hard, honestly. It’s hard having someone deployed.”

As a leader in the battalion’s Family Readiness Group, Heather is charged with assisting spouses and keeping them informed of any developments during the deployment.

“I’m very proud of anybody that’s in the military,” she said. “It takes a strong person to do what they do, to be away from their families during all these times.”


©2017 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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