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The Cook family is back together again. Sgt. Penny Cook spent five months in Iraq, returning only recently to Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. Her absence left Bill Cook to care for their three daughters: Kayley, 4, Cheyenne, 3, and Jasmine, 18 months.
The Cook family is back together again. Sgt. Penny Cook spent five months in Iraq, returning only recently to Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. Her absence left Bill Cook to care for their three daughters: Kayley, 4, Cheyenne, 3, and Jasmine, 18 months. (Kent Harris / S&S)

VICENZA, Italy — The theme is familiar to thousands of American military families stationed in Europe: Spouse deploys to Iraq, leaving the other one to take care of the kids and everything else at home.

But for the Cook family, the boot’s been on the other foot.

Sgt. Penny Cook spent five months downrange with the 208th Finance Battalion, leaving Bill Cook with the somewhat daunting task of taking care of three daughters. The oldest, Kayley, celebrated her fourth birthday while Mom was away.

It was a wake-up call, Bill Cook said.

“Most men have blindfolds when it comes to what their wives do around the household,” he said.

The blindfold came off in August when his wife deployed.

Cook has held several jobs at Vicenza. But he wasn’t working when his wife was sent to Iraq. And he said it wouldn’t have worked if he had a job. A job outside the house, that is.

“Most of the jobs you find around here are for $6 or $8 an hour,” he said. “But baby-sitting here for three girls this age will run $12 or $14 an hour. So it wouldn’t make any sense.

“In the States, it would be easy enough to make it work. You’ve probably got family you could call on to help out. Over here, it’s a much different situation.”

Not that Cook, who spent eight years in the military, thinks his situation was unique.

“Everyone out there told me I was doing a good job with the kids,” he said, gesturing to the people walking by at Caserma Ederle. “But I wasn’t doing any more than any woman out there. In fact, I was probably doing less than most.”

But his situation had a few wrinkles.

Cook is a Harley-Davidson enthusiast. He wears a black jacket, has his hair tied back in a ponytail and sports a goatee. The sight of him trying to maneuver around base with three tiny, pink-clad girls brought more than a few smiles.

“Funny as it sounds, I did get a lot of sympathy,” he said.

He also got a few dirty looks from men in the restroom when he had to take the girls in with him as nature (frequently) called.

“We’d go in the stalls and sometimes when we came out, someone would start to say something,” Cook said with a smile. “I’d just give them a look that said, ‘Don’t start.’”

One of the biggest surprises about being a single dad, he said, is the amount of time it took him to round up the girls and take them places. Every trip to the base was an adventure.

“Load the kids, unload the kids, load the kids, unload the kids,” he said, shaking his head.

Not that he didn’t have some idea of what it was like before.

Cook used to help out when he was asked, Penny Cook said. But with her gone, he was on his own. The two managed to send electronic messages back and forth a few times a week.

“At the beginning, he was asking where stuff was,” she said. “But I’m very impressed with how he did.”

Cook said one of his chief concerns was how the girls were taking Mom’s absence. Jasmine, only 18 months, was a particular worry. The two oldest daughters — Kayley and Cheyenne, 3 — are a bit on the shy side. Jasmine is quickest with a smile for a stranger. But with Penny Cook gone so long, she effectively could be such a stranger to her young daughters.

So he showed them a picture of Mom every day and talked about her.

The two oldest girls recognized their mother right away when she returned. “It was Christmastime as far as they were concerned,” Cook said. But Jasmine was a different story.

“It took her about a day and a half to warm back up to her,” he said. “Now, she goes back and forth and gets hugs from both of us.”

Cook said he learned several valuable lessons during his wife’s deployment. And his wife said he’s helping out more. As evidence, he was the one who took the girls to the bathroom while his wife answered a few more questions for this interview.

But he said it’s nice to be able to have some time to read and play on the computer. And he actually gets to ride his motorcycle again and contemplates attending the occasional rally in Europe.

Those three girls might be a big hit at such an event. But there would be all that loading and unloading.

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