Jennifer McBrayer, 29, plays with her two daughters, Kaci, 2, and Taryn, 5 months, at a Misawa Air Base, Japan, playground.

Jennifer McBrayer, 29, plays with her two daughters, Kaci, 2, and Taryn, 5 months, at a Misawa Air Base, Japan, playground. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)


Amber Newkirk, 20, told herself it was OK to start counting the days when the desert camouflage came out at Misawa.

The tan-clad airmen, spotted around base last week as the 13th Fighter Squadron prepared to deploy, were on their way to Iraq.

It means Newkirk’s husband, Senior Airman Nathaniel Newkirk, 22, and the hundreds of Misawa airmen slugging it out downrange for more than four months in support of the 14th Fighter Squadron are homeward bound.

“When I look back, I can’t believe he’s almost home,” Newkirk said. “Then again, when February hit, I was like, ‘God, three more months.’ Now I’m like ‘Ah, we’re almost done.’”

For security purposes, base officials won’t publicly announce the airmen’s arrival date, but the families and spouses piloting solo since January know the time is near.

They’re busy making posters, ordering balloons, decorating and cleaning houses, and finishing — or starting — projects.

For some young couples, this deployment was their first separation due to war — and longest.

While they can’t wait to see each other, some are also feeling a tinge of anxiety.

While her husband was away, Amber took up caring for children at her house through the family support center.

She sold her car, in preparation for the couple’s permanent-change-of-station move this summer.

And her routine changed.

She said she goes to bed earlier, watches less TV, and cooks dinner these days means heating up “Lean Cuisine,” she said, with a chuckle.

“With somebody else in the house, [it’s] not weird, it’s just going to feel funny,” she said. “I’ll have more laundry to do.”

She needs no time to recall her toughest day without Nathaniel, a life support technician with the 14th Fighter Squadron.

“Last Tuesday. I dropped a drawer on my toe. The truck decided it was going to give out on me. The dog I was watching decided to poop all over my house. The kids I were watching weren’t in a good mood,” she said.

As the days wind down at Balad Air Base north of Baghdad, where the 14th and Misawa’s other airmen are deployed, Nathaniel is trying to subdue his excitement.

“I don’t want to lose my composure,” he said last week in a phone interview from Balad.

He’s most looking forward to seeing his wife. “It’s been a while,” he said.

He faced his own challenges.

“The stakes are higher,” he explained. “If radios or serial numbers between pilots get mixed up, what they use to authenticate themselves,” they could be mistaken for the wrong person.

Mortars were another thing altogether.

“The buildings shake when it’s pretty close,” he said. “It feels like your heart went out of your chest.”

Amber doesn’t need to hear about it.

“As long as he comes home safe to me, I don’t care what went on over there,” she said.

Noel Pearson, 27, wants to hear the war stories.

“Of course, I’m curious. I’m fascinated by what he does,” she said of her husband, fighter pilot Capt. Patrick Pearson. “I’m interested in what he saw. I hope he can tell me a little bit more.”

As of last week, Patrick, in a phone interview from Balad, said he had flown 54 missions.

What he might tell Noel about the experience is this: “I feel like we did a lot of good work,” he said, referring to the close-air support mission.

“We know all the bombs we dropped, but we did a lot of work that wasn’t kinetic strikes, where we were helping the guys out without any way to measure it’s effectiveness except to know that it was effective.”

Thinking of his “home away from home,” Patrick, 28, said he’s most looking forward to seeing Noel again.

He admits he’s exhausted.

“We’ve been doing this for awhile and there’s not a lot variation in the routine. Every day is pretty much flying or other duties.”

There might not be much time for rest when Patrick gets home, as the couple has two weddings to attend and a move looming.

But Noel said she’s not worried about re-adjusting to having Patrick back.

“It’s just the two of us,” Noel reasons. “We don’t have any kids … I’m very excited. Other than the crazy summer we have planned, I’m looking forward to seeing him again.”

For the McBrayers – Jennifer and F-16 pilot Capt. Brandon McBrayer – their challenge will be adopting new family routines.

Jennifer gave birth to 5-month-old Taryn two weeks before Brandon deployed. The couple’s older daughter, Kaci, 2, had a birthday, and can now sing her ABC’s and speak in sentences.

Jennifer said she’s nervous and excited for Brandon’s return.

“He’s coming back to a house that’s not just the two of us anymore; it’s the three of us and a very set schedule and routine,” she said.

“How we’ve made it work for the last four or five months, we lived our lives like we needed to so we could get by each day, and just wondering how he’s going to fit into that big picture.”

Besides when Brandon left, the hardest day without him was when Kaci moved to a “big girl’s” bed, she said. “I just really wish her daddy was here to enjoy that night with me.”

Brandon said the separation — their “longest stretch apart” — was also hard on him.

“It was hard to get pictures and videos and not be there to see the moments,” he wrote in an e-mail response from Balad. But, “It was nice to hear my 2-year-old daughter recognize my voice on the phone.”

If Kaci senses her father will soon be home, it’s from the jelly bean jar that’s almost empty. Jennifer said she gives her daughter a jelly bean every day after a nap, telling her that when it’s empty, her daddy will be home.

She’s also practicing some new words, Jennifer noted: “Welcome home, Daddy.”

Best advice: Take it slow

Reuniting after a long separation can be rocky at times for couples, with or without children, according to Rochelle Phelps, Family Advocacy outreach manager at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

But usually not at first.

“The first few weeks is like the honeymoon period,” she said.

And then, reality hits.

The spouse left behind is typically more independent, Phelps said, and may have assumed new roles, such as paying the bills, taking care of the car, and with kids, single parenting. It may be a struggle at first to re-establish household routines and tasks, she said.

Communication is another area that may need work.

“Now that the spouse is back, they have to start using communication skills again in making decisions together,” she said. “That four months of ‘Hey, I can go to the store when I want, or stay in my pajamas all day and watch movies,’ all of a sudden they have another person they have to consider in day-to-day activities.”

Phelps said it takes about six to eight weeks to re-establish new routines.“If people aren’t feeling quite themselves after eight weeks, maybe that’s the time they should go and talk to someone,” such as a friend, supervisor or chaplain, she suggests.

Family Advocacy also offers parenting classes and marriage counseling. Families or couples also may seek assistance from the Military Family Life Consultant.

Phelps offered a few tips to smooth out the bumps of the re-integration process.

For all couples:

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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