A bitter winter wind prevents families from lingering on the pier as sailors board the guided missile destroyer Mahan for deployment. Trent Davidson's mother zips up his sweatshirt and cups his teary face in her hands for a last kiss, and then his father scoops him up and begins the long walk back to the parking lot. The oldest of corpsman Leslie Davidson's three boys, Trent, 8, is carried by his father, Brock, until the family is well beyond the ship. "Hold hands," Brock instructs his three sons, and Trent takes the hand of his brother Connor, 4, so they can cross the street safely.
"It's just the boys," announces Brock as they head toward the car. "I don't know what we're gonna do now. It's gonna be a whole lotta Daddy."
"The minute I walked away, I started thinking about Leslie and what she's feeling. I can't even imagine how she feels right now," says Brock as he secures his two youngest sons into car seats in the back. Trent slouches in the front seat, his head bowed to his chest. This will be the longest time the boy has been away from his mother, and the act of saying goodbye seems to have affected him the most. "They have a really special bond. He's really opened up to her," explains Brock. "I think he has a harder time because he's old enough to understand what's happening."
"Come on, baby. I know you're tired. I'm so proud of you. You're doing great. One more time." The words of encouragement are spoken almost in a whisper, at the bedside of a new mother-to-be in the early hours of this December morning at Portsmouth Naval Hospital. The family has been there throughout the long day and night, waiting for their first daughter, Chelsea Terrell, to give birth to her first, a baby girl who already has a name picked out: Audrey June.
Though she is surrounded by support, missing from Chelsea's bedside is the one person she would most like to share this moment with: her husband aviation ordnanceman and Petty Officer 2nd Class Cole Terrell, who was deployed with the carrier Truman for most of her pregnancy and will miss the birth of his first child.
As the labor continues, hour upon hour, Chelsea's mother, Linda Hofe, climbs into the hospital bed to comfort her, and her father, David Hofe, strokes her face and tucks her long dark hair behind her ears. After nearly three hours of pushing, the baby's first cry is both a celebration and a relief. Chelsea collapses back onto the bed and then raises her head. "Can somebody get a hold of my husband?"
Waiting to Adopt
The nursery is perfectly appointed, from the Humpty Dumpty lamps on the bedside tables, to the armchair by the window. The only thing missing now is the baby that Elizabeth Speigle and her husband Capt. Hiram Augusto Centeno Justiniano have been waiting years to meet. The couple was ready to be adoptive parents, even when they learned their baby would arrive while Augusto is deployed in Afghanistan with Virginia National Guard's Virginia Beach-based 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. Just weeks before her due date, the birth mother decided to pull out of the adoption process.
"You are only given as much as you can handle," Elizabeth says. With the nursery ready and parenting classes completed, she checks the adoption site dozens of times a day, hoping for a match that might start the process all over again. "I fell in love with that baby from day one. Especially with domestic adoptions, you decide what your threshold is for risk and you take it. When I found out we'd lost her, I was sad and I was angry, but Augusto says that we need to be patient. Someday, our baby will come along."
Red-faced, wailing and inconsolable, the baby's cries cut above the din of Walmart's food aisles on this Thursday afternoon. Mary Brazie, mother to Aubrey and Aidan, has resigned herself to the constant protestations of her youngest child, who is calm in the car but disconsolate once forced into the child seat. Mary scans the aisles for the bread, peanut butter and apple juice on her list, and contemplates whether a 5 pound bag of apples fits into her weekly budget, or if she should just pick up a few for now. She puts the full force of her small frame into maneuvering the shopping cart through the store, anxious to get the shopping trip over with as soon as possible.
"One look from Tyler, and they'd both be smiling," sighs Mary, whose husband, Tyler Brazie, a petty officer third class , is deployed with the carrier Truman. Their first deployment has proved difficult for Mary, especially since Tyler is such an active father to her two children. "He'd be smiling, the kids would be happy, and he'd be making choices about what to buy because he loves to cook. When I first met him, I thought to myself, 'This is the man that I love.' It is harder than I expected to be without him, even for just the little things, like grocery shopping.
"The day he deployed, he left a towel on the floor of the bathroom, and normally that would bother me, but for the longest time I didn't even want to pick it up, because I missed him so much. I would give anything for him to be home right now, leaving towels all over the floor."
Best Friend Deployed
Jihan Sanders met her best friend Sheena in their 11th grade French class when Sullen turned around in her seat and introduced herself. "She has the biggest heart," says Jihan. "She should have been my sister, I love her that much." When Sheena, an operations specialist petty officer 1st class heard she was deploying with the guided missile destroyer Mahan, she needed someone to take care of her two children, and Jihan, a mother of two herself, was ready to step in, though it meant picking up her family and moving them from Alabama to Virginia.
Now Dominique Sullen, 14, and Zaria Sullen-Polk, 8, live with Jihan's two children, Tashawn Sanders, 12, and Darric Sanders, 9, in a cozy apartment in Norfolk where dinner is served promptly at 7:30 and Jihan calls out the bathtime schedule once the dishes are cleared. Being a caregiver for four children seems natural for Jihan. "This is the least I can do for her," she says.
"I saw this beauty in her when she became a mom. I was a tomboy, and she showed me how to be a girl. When she needed someone to watch her kids while she was deployed, I prayed on it, and God spoke to me. It was time for a change, and I needed a new beginning. It's the best decision I've ever made in my life, and I know she would do the same for me."
"In ancient Jewish society, a woman depended on her husband for sustenance and social status," comes the voice of Father Steve DeLeon through the television. "To lose a husband meant to be poor and defenseless, especially where the widow had no grownup son." A few minutes late to Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Virginia Beach, the Castillo family sneaks past the lobby and into the nursery, where the youngest children, Kevin, 8, and Tessa, 5, find spots on the floor, and where the family can watch the service over the television. The Castillo's eldest, Kim, sits between her boyfriend, Ryan Harr, and her mother, Tammy Castillo, whose husband, Mike, a maintenance material management coordinator, is deployed with the cruiser Normandy. Though this is their fifth deployment, for Tammy, it is proving to be the hardest.
"Faith is what will keep us going when it seems that our situation seems hopeless and our prayers seem to go unanswered," continues Father Steve, as Tammy raises her eyes to the screen and Ryan rests his head on Kim's shoulder. "God does not ask us to be perfect, because we will never be perfect. God asks us to keep on trying. The persistent widow is the hero of today's parable, not because she got what was rightfully hers, but because she did not give up in the face of all of the obstacles."
"If I wake up crying for Mommy again, will you come up and get me?" calls Jackson after his father, who carries a drowsy baby Ella to her bedroom. The night before, Jackson had woken up calling for his mother, Elizabeth Barnes, for the first time since she left for her deployment as a chief electronics technician on the carrier Truman, and wants the assurance that his dad would be there for him. Gary Barnes ducks back into his son's room. "Of course, buddy. I'll be there."
"She's physically gone, but she's not really gone. She's a part of our everyday routine," Gary says. He had planned to make his career in the Navy as a chief fire controlman, until an illness forced him into early retirement. The family re-imagined their plans, and it made sense for Elizabeth to finish her career in the military, and for Gary to care for the children, as well as run the family business, while Elizabeth is away. "It's different on so many levels. Instead of being only the disciplinarian, I've learned when they need comfort and when they need hugs and kisses. Sometimes they just need 10 minutes to run wild, instead of being on a strict schedule. It's a really cool bonding experience I get to share with my kids."
"With deployment, I learned that I'm not in control of everything, and I have to let go of that," says Danielle Brazie, whose husband, Robin Brazie, is an air traffic controller on the carrier Truman. With all the uncertainty inherent in deployment and a nomadic life in the military, there are certain things she does control, and keeping busy is her way of dealing with this first long separation from her husband. She has three children to care for and has devoted herself to homeschooling them, so their daily life is full of activities like trips to the zoo, where even Annabella, 6 months, is engaged in the lessons of the field trip.
"I get so lonely for him, but the goal is to be so busy that I don't have much time to miss him," Danielle says. "For the first two months, I missed him because the day-to-day was harder without him. Now, I miss him as my partner, the person I love. I miss his company."
"When he left, I'd never really lived in a big city. I told myself I'd get really busy and involved. Now that he's been gone so long, I see that I did everything I said I'd do, and that means a lot to me. Now I know, I can do this. I can make it through this, if I just stay busy."
On a Friday night at The Banque in Norfolk, the floor is packed with dancers, aligned in neat rows, each intently focused on the steps they're performing. At front and center is Jasmine Michaux, who took up line dancing after her husband, culinary specialist Anthony Michaux, deployed with the cruiser Normandy. For Jasmine, expanding her horizons was the silver lining of being separated from her husband for his first deployment. Seen through Jasmine's eyes, even a deployment can have a positive side.
Anthony deployed the day she received her master's degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University. "There I was, in a cap and gown, bawling," Jasmine recalls. "Then I dried my tears. He's serving his country, providing for me and our future family, and I'm doing the same by getting my degree."
She got involved with the Normandy's Family Readiness Group and found a community of like-minded women who were working to make it through the separation by supporting one another, even taking up the challenge to learn line dancing. Staying optimistic helped Jasmine through the months without her husband.
"Since he's been away, I've learned a lot about myself, and I know I can handle him being gone," she says.
Jasmine did not have to wait much longer. The Normandy returned with its strike group just in time for Christmas.
Trying to Get Pregnant
The news, though disappointing, has become familiar. A frown crosses her face as Dr. Bruce Bateman tells Melanie Ellyson that she'll need to wait a few weeks longer until her eggs will be ready for fertilization. This is Melanie's third try with fertility treatment, which mandates a constant schedule of daily injections, weekly office visits and expensive medication not covered by insurance. Though grueling, the routine helps fill the time that her husband, Staff Sgt. Wayne Ellyson, is deployed with Virginia National Guard's Virginia Beach-based 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, currently serving in Afghanistan.
"Before we were even married, we knew we would have trouble conceiving. Finding out that I'm not ready again is a little frustrating, but we have faith." From the examination room, Melanie walks to another office and braces herself for what she anticipates will be a tough experience getting blood drawn. But the nurse is quick and accurate, and in a moment the visit is over and Melanie will take the trip to the pharmacy that has become her habit, and cross her fingers that in another week they'll hear good news.
The car pulls up to the Red Roof Inn in Hampton, and a line of expectant faces looks down from the second-story walkway, waiting for a first glimpse of the baby with the shock of raven hair as she is unbundled from her car seat. First down the stairs is Lillian Tiberio whose outstretched arms take Olivia, her first grandchild, and draw her close in. "She looks just like David," Lillian exclaims, as she starts to cry. "She's gorgeous." Lilian and Dave Tiberio, along with their sons Ethan, 4, and Jordan, 21, made the long drive from Red Hook, New York to meet their first grandchild. Missing from the reunion is David, a Third Class Petty Officer on the Normandy, whose ship deployed just days before his daughter was born. "I remember leaving the pier after following it down to the very end. I followed it until I couldn't see the ship anymore," his wife Jennifer recalls. "On the phone, we daydream about what it's going to be like when he comes home and he gets to see the baby for the first time. He's going to be a great Dad. I have no doubt about it."
The family settles in to the small motel room, focused entirely on Olivia, who snuggles into her grandmother's arms. Gathered on the bed, the family puts the phone on speaker, to talk with David. "I bet she's cute," says David.
"Oh my God, she's beautiful," says Lillian. "She's sleeping in my arms. I can't wait until you can hold her."
Across a classroom full of students in full Thanksgiving costumes, the realization that the figure in the uniform at the threshold is her father hits Emily Cirillo first slowly, and then with an irresistible intensity. Emily bolts out of her chair, navigating the crowded maze of chairs at top speed. "Oh my goodness, Dad! You scared the noodles out of me!" Like her sister Julianna before her, Emily clings to her father and sobs, as her teacher gently suggests that she's free to take a moment in the hallway to regain her composure before beginning her presentation on the life of Pocahontas. It doesn't take long for Emily, a gregarious 9-year old, to dry her tears, straighten her costume and recite her history to an unexpected audience.
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cirillo spent three days on a series of planes from Afghanistan to make it home to Virginia Beach for two weeks of R&R, past the halfway point of his deployment with the Virginia National Guard's Virginia Beach-based 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. He and his wife, Elizabeth Cirillo, worked to keep his return a secret from their four daughters, who were surprised by his visit on an otherwise routine Wednesday morning. Two weeks at home in the middle of a deployment are often bittersweet; while his family is overjoyed to see him, they know that they will once more have to say goodbye.