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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — When Charles “Chuck” Starnes awoke Monday to find his hot water heater on the fritz, the cold shower emphasized it was time to go.

By midday he had said goodbye to his wife and three young daughters and was in the air on his way for a four-month deployment to the Middle East.

“Without fail, something breaks just before I deploy somewhere,” the technical sergeant said with a laugh while waiting for his flight at the base terminal. “Usually it’s the car.”

But he was confident his wife, Kim, could handle the problem.

It’s never easy saying goodbye to family, but the Starneses have learned from experience how to take some of the hassles and heartache out of long separations.

The couple starts preparing for deployments weeks before his bags are packed. That includes ensuring their important paperwork — things like his will, power of attorney and the long list of important emergency phone numbers — is complete and handy. It also includes letting the children know exactly where daddy is going and what he’ll be doing for the next four months.

For Starnes, 31, a ground radio technician with the 18th Communications Squadron, the destination is Qatar. He left Monday afternoon with 125 other airmen from various units on Kadena for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“The girls are pretty used to my deployments by now,” Starnes said. Since Jasmine was born 10 years ago he’s been deployed to Turkey, Uzbekistan, Uganda and other far-flung places. His other daughters are Maya, 8, and Kiera, 6.

“Poor Kiera,” Starnes said. “This will mark her fourth birthday I’ll miss because of a deployment. I promised her we’ll have a special celebration when I return. And Kim and I have given up on Valentine’s Day. I’ve missed eight of the last 12.”

Kim, 31, is his high school sweetheart. They met in Burlington, N.C.

“She totally supports me in what I’ve chosen as a career,” Starnes said. “Last night she was up ironing my uniform for me.

“She’s very independent and capable of taking good care of herself and the girls,” he added. “While I’m gone she plays both mom and dad.”

The couple tried to live normal lives leading up to this deployment, making sure they didn’t stray too much from their daily schedules. But Monday was special.

“We all had breakfast together at the Tea House before school,” Kim Starnes said during an interview the next day at the family’s home in Okinawa city. “That was pretty special. Then we drove the girls to school.”

The goodbyes were emotional.

“He makes me laugh a lot by making silly faces,” Maya said of her dad. “I’ll miss that.”

“I’m going to miss him reading to me,” Kiera said. “I really like books like ‘Who Stole the Cookie From the Cookie Jar?’”

“What I’m going to miss most is just holding my girls,” Starnes said at the air terminal.

In the weeks leading up to the deployment, Starnes said, he and his wife briefed the girls on Qatar and talked about the kind of work he’d be doing there. They don’t shield their children from the nightly news, so the girls are familiar with what is going on in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

“When they were younger, we used to just say that daddy was going to spend some time at work,” Starnes said. “But now they understand. Some parents won’t let their kids watch the news when a parent is deployed, but we believe they should be well informed so they won’t be surprised if something does happen.

“They know where Qatar is on a map and we’ve checked out the weather on AFN,” he said. “They know that Qatar is relatively safe. And they also know I could be sent [on temporary duty] to more dangerous areas.”

Maya shared what she had learned: “It’s very sandy there. He’s going to the desert. But his best friends are going to be with him, so he’ll be OK.”

Kim Starnes works in the Stearley Heights Elementary School cafeteria.

“It keeps me busy during the day and keeps my mind off things,” she said. She also meets every Tuesday with a group of women from her church.

One of the things Starnes said he’ll really miss is the quiet time just before he puts the girls to bed, when they read and pray together.

“The kids have been great this past week,” Starnes said. “They gave me these little cards that say ‘Dad, we’re going to pray for you every day.’ That helps relieve some of the stress.”

Starnes said he’ll keep himself busy during his off-duty times by studying and working out. He also took along his XBox 360 and a small monitor for games and movies.

“One of the things I do is just turn stuff off when I step on the plane to go,” he said. “I don’t worry about what might happen. I just wait to get wherever I’m going and then see what the mission is and get to work. You can’t change white to black. When I get there, I get there.”

At the top of his to-do list when he gets settled in Qatar is send his new e-mail address to his family so they can communicate daily.

“We’ve already set the girls up with their own e-mail accounts and even Kiera knows how to type on a computer. There’ll also be a lot of phone calls,” he said with a laugh. “It’s good being the communications guy.”

While their dad’s away, Kim Starnes said, she’ll keep the daily routine with the girls. And on weekends, they’ll do some special things like go to nearby White Beach.

“I love picking up shells,” Maya said.

“My favorite thing is playing in the sand,” said a bashful Kiera. Jasmine said she is looking forward to swimming once the weather gets warmer.

“And when dad gets home we’re going to go fishing,” she said. “That’ll be fun.”

Kim Starnes’ advice to other spouses dealing with deployments is to be sure everything is taken care of well in advance.

“Try to keep everything simple,” she said. “Keep the same schedule. Make sure things go along pretty much the same way as if the spouse were here. And make sure your house is in order, the car’s in order, all the paperwork’s done and you know what numbers to call if you need anything — like fixing the hot water heater.”

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