During the final days of the Gulf War, I took our 3-year-old son, Daniel, his 2-year-old brother, Philip, and our infant daughter, Bethany, to watch their father launch his F-4 Phantom jet. He would soon be going to the Middle East.
"When will de Papa be back home, Mama?" asked Daniel as he waved his chubby hand at the airplane.
"Soon," I said as I fought back tears and kissed my baby daughter on her fuzzy blond head. "We are praying he will come home soon."
Philip was excited; he loved watching airplanes. "I wuv you, Papa!" he shouted as he jumped up and down. All of the sudden, he turned to me, furrowed his brow and said, very seriously, "You know, I weally wuv de Papa." Then he turned to wave at the small speck in the sky as his dad flew his mission.
Later that week, Daniel's Sunday school teacher told me that he'd had a special prayer request. "Please pway for all de Air Force guys dat fly to betect our fweedoms." Then he paused and added, "And please pway for dem Army guys dat do de same thing — but dey fly and flight on dem helicopters. Oh, and pray for de Army girls, too!"
* * *
As a military family with five school-age children and two adult children, we have a keen appreciation for what it takes to keep this nation free. We've lived through two wars as my husband, Lt. Col. Bob Kay, was called upon to fly and fight in order to protect our nation's freedoms. We're the veterans on the home front.
Some have called military families the "hidden heroes at home," but most of us would not accept such a title. After all, we don't wear the uniform, we haven't sworn to offer our life's blood to defend our nation, and we don't eat MRE rations in some faraway place. We merely support those who do.
And yet, if Bob knows that when he returns from his mission he will have a loving family waiting for him, he is better able to concentrate on the task at hand. When he believes that his family will have people in the community who will assist them through the uncertain weeks and months, then perhaps he rests a little better when he contemplates the stars in a darkened sky half a world away. In some way, all the supportive families of airmen, seamen, soldiers and Marines, as well as their communities, have contributed to our national defense.
Ways to Reach Out
As a veteran wife and mom, I've seen my share of so-called "fire fights" at home while Dad is away. Any military spouse will tell you that it seems as soon as the troops deploy, the children get sick, the washer breaks down or a distracted mom will absentmindedly plow through a partially opened garage door. (We once purchased two garage doors in one year.)
Nonetheless, I have confidence that God watches over us, even as He has in the past. I believe that one of the ways God does this is to send "angels" in skin. These people come to the rescue when the mundane issues of life — mowing yards, cooking dinner — threaten to be our downfall.
It is precisely at these moments that God often provides a strong back to take care of a few of Dad's chores or a hot meal when I'm too exhausted to cook.
In this time of continued national concern, if you find yourself wondering how you can reach out in practical ways to military families or rescue workers who may be called upon to serve for extended periods of time, you might find these suggestions helpful.
Initially, there are quite a few phone calls, cards and letters of support. Here are a few tips for these calls.
Brevity: Keep the initial phone calls brief and to the point, such as: "I just want to let you know that we're praying for you and will be here to support you in any way we can."
Sensitivity: Be mindful that sometimes people will want to talk and other times they won't because they are bombarded by the enormity of their circumstances.
Leave a message: Some families may have an answering machine on at all times. If you get the machine, don't hang up; leave a short message expressing your care and concern.
If you are related to a military family, your initial reaction might be to go help them. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Ask first: Don't call and simply announce your intentions to come to their rescue. Ask permission to come and be prepared for a no or a maybe later.
Not about you: If you get one or two negative responses about a visit, then remember that this is not about you. Don't make life harder for these family members by insisting on so-called "family rights" to help.
Living arrangements: If the military family has determined that your visit can be more of an asset than a liability, then consider the living arrangements. If they live in military housing, then their quarters are likely very small. Consider staying at an inexpensive hotel, billeting on base or even renting a clean RV to stay in during your visit. Close quarters tend to add stress.
Permissive help: On your visit, help without taking over. Ask permission to help, and then feel free to clean, cook, do laundry, take the children to the zoo, mow the lawn, change the oil in the car, fix the broken door handles, run errands — well, you get the idea.
Cards and letters
The recent military surge in Afghanistan means there are a lot of families experiencing even more separations from their military members. Once the media frenzy of the initial deployment wears off, people get on with their lives and tend to forget the families that remain alone for many weeks. Here are ways not to forget:
Mark your calendar: Make a weekly reminder note to send a card or make a call. God has a way of using your little note to make a big difference.
Humor helps: Humor can be an incredibly healing balm and provide a much-needed release, so you might want to send a funny card.
Unconditional love: Do not require a response from your friend. Your card may have meant a lot, but when your friend sees you the next week, her mind is so full of other things she may not remember to thank you. The usual protocols do not always apply during sustained separations from family members.
As our military forces struggle against terrorism, there is a lot you can do for families on the home front.
It's one thing to give a family an open-ended statement of "If there's anything we can do to help, please let us know." Chances are they will never call for your help. Here are some ways to be proactive in your offer for help:
Refusals permitted: While you offer help, be sensitive to the fact that they may refuse it. Don't take it personally; just make a different offer for help at a later time.
Be specific: Instead of a blanket proposal for help, offer a tangible form of assistance, such as, "Can my son and I come and mow your lawn on Friday or Saturday?" Or "I'd like to bring you a meal one day next week. What day would be a good day for you to take a break from cooking?"
Group projects: When the troops were deployed in our unit, a youth group from another town wanted to come help the airmen's families. The thought of a bunch of strangers coming to help was initially kind of scary. If your group wants to help, contact a military family through someone they know or through the unit's supervisory contact. Have a specific project in mind — like clearing away leaves or cleaning the house. Always have adult supervision present and responsible for those in your group. These projects can be a tremendous blessing to the families involved.
Send chocolate (or other tokens)
Give your friends small gifts from time to time. These special treats make all the difference.
Cost is not important: Thoughtful reminders don't have to be expensive. Drop off a gift basket filled with your friend's favorite foods. (Did I mention I love chocolate?) Or give her a DVD movie rental her family has wanted to see. (Be sure to let them know when it's due back.)
Gifts of time: Why not make a coupon booklet as a gift. Include coupons for free baby-sitting, a meal, a favorite batch of cookies, a coffee date, help with running errands — the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Group gift: Groups of friends could join together and buy a long-distance phone card, a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant or movie passes for a fun night out.
There's an old saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes." No matter what their religious affiliation, the overwhelming majority of military families won't turn down prayer. Let them know you are praying regularly for them.
Ellie Kay is the author of 14 books, including the best-selling Heroes at Home: Help & Hope for American Military Families.