By Paul Giblin
KABUL – This year will mark the third consecutive Christmas that I’ll spend half a world away from my wife and our sons.
Like thousands of other Arizonans, I’ll spend the holiday season in Afghanistan, where the decade-long war and reconstruction effort continue simultaneously.
I work as a civilian employee of the Army, assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the primary organization rebuilding Afghanistan’s ravaged infrastructure. I’m stationed at the Corps of Engineers’ headquarters for northern Afghanistan, a base called the Qalaa House compound in Kabul, a city of 3.9 million people.
While living and working in a war zone presents an array of challenges every day, one of the most difficult, and perhaps the most important, is finding active and meaningful ways to be involved in my sons’ lives despite the distance. Casey is a sophomore at the University of Arizona in Tucson; Tim is a senior in high school and lives at home with my wife Sandra in north Phoenix.
Staying connected to children back home is a regular topic of discussion among the older set at Qalaa House. I’ve spoken about those challenges at length with several colleagues, including Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Chad Brandau of Tucson, who’s the top enlisted service member for the Corps of Engineers in the region.
Mostly, the parents among us serve as sounding boards for one another, listening to each other describe our children’s tonsillectomies and art show awards, which we only know about secondhand ourselves. We tell each other that we’re not actually the missing-in-action parents that we suspect we truly are.
The effect of deployments on children is a topic that’s received considerable professional study in recent years.
A frequently cited study published by the journal Pediatrics in December 2009 offers a stark assessment of the well-being of children with deployed parents.
“Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children From Military Families,” was based on computer-assisted telephone interviews of 1,507 sets of military children between 11 and 17 years old and their non-deployed parents.
Researchers examined how children were doing socially, emotionally and academically. They found that children with deployed parents reported more “stressors” in their lives than children from a general national sample.
They determined that older boys, and girls of all ages, reported significantly more difficulties in school, family and peer-related settings. Specifically, the kids had more trouble dealing with household chores and school responsibilities. Factors contributing to kids’ difficulties included length of the deployed parents’ absences and poor mental health of non-deployed parents.
To compound the matter, other studies link the length of military deployments to poor mental health in the non-deployed parents.
Not surprisingly, the 2009 study showed that children who had deployed parents, but lived among other children with deployed parents in military housing, did better than children with deployed parents who lived off base.
Separations for long periods of time cause change for everyone involved.
My duties in Afghanistan largely entail flying around the country to report on reconstruction efforts. The Corps of Engineers is building military bases and police stations for the Afghan army and police, so that Afghans can provide security against the Taliban and other insurgents. The Corps of Engineers also is building roads, airstrips and dams, among other developments. The goal is to stabilize the country’s economy to undercut the influence of insurgents and opium barons.
At times, the job gets me to places that are accessible only by helicopter or donkey.
The hours are long and the conditions are sparse. All Corps of Engineers employees work at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with the exception of Fridays, which are half days.
About 400 military and civilian personnel live and work at the Qalaa House compound, which is a complex about the size of a middle school. The compound is surrounded by tall blast walls, coils of razor wire, view-blocking anti-sniper screens and guard towers that are manned 24 hours a day. And those are just some of the obvious layers of security.
Most of the offices are situated in buildings that previously were luxury homes, at least by Afghan standards. Most of the converted houses have impressive marble floors and grand staircases. The namesake Qalaa House building previously was the Iraqi embassy.
Most of the compound’s living quarters are buildings comprised of individual metal shipping containers like those on semi-trailer trucks. The containers have been outfitted with doors and electricity, and are stacked two or three stories high. Most containers are double occupancy.
I’m fortunate. The living conditions at Qalaa House are better than at most U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. Many service members sleep in tents (I was a guest in a 418-man tent at Kandahar Air Field a while ago) and their duty stations often are somewhere among the county’s mine-rigged streets, dunes, washes and poppy fields.
While deployed, military service members and civilian employees alike miss a significant number of milestones at home—birthdays, anniversaries, high school swim meets, proms, ski trips, the day the kid passes the driver’s license exam, the day the college acceptance letter arrives.
I’ve been 7,765 miles away on each and every one of those days.
As a result, it’s usually the conflicts in my mind, rather than the conflict around me in Afghanistan, that keep me awake at night.
Brandau, who has served in active duty for 25 years, has been through it twice. He has two adult sons—Chase, who lives in Minnesota, and Clint, who’s in the Army and stationed at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista. He and his wife Patty have another son Chance, who’s 8. They live at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.
Brandau’s current 365-day tour in Kabul is his second in Afghanistan. He previously served a 455-day tour at a small base in the village of Jalalabad near the Pakistan border. Before that, he had eight other deployments around the globe that ranged from 90 days to six months apiece.
In all, he’s spent about five years of his career stationed away from home. Without question, the time away took a toll.
“For my first two sons, I never got to be the Tooth Fairy. I had two boys and never got to be the Tooth Fairy once. Do you know what I mean? There are just certain things you miss. That’s the hardest part,” he says.
Maturity, hindsight and technology have helped him close the gap with his youngest son.
During his first deployment to Afghanistan a few years ago, Brandau regularly emailed photos and short letters about his daily life overseas. He dispatched photos he took of people and scenes around him, and photos that colleagues snapped of him.
“It was just something for him to see a picture,” Brandau says. “Maybe me standing with an Afghan child or giving someone a bottle of water or whatever. Then I would tell him what the picture was about. He really liked them, so I just kept them going.”
Unknown to Brandau at the time, his wife Patty had been printing the emails and compiling them in a three-ring binder. It became Chance’s personal picture book, which he flipped through whenever he chose.
On Brandau’s current tour, he’s kept up the practice, emailing photos and letters that are longer now because his son is old enough to read. His wife and son have been compiling the dispatches into a second book and emailing him photos and letters about life back in Arizona.
“That’s the key right there—doing the little things,” Brandau says. “If next May, when I roll out of here…I had a three-ring binder, and took that home and showed him that I was saving all those pictures that he sent, just like he was doing, well, stuff like that goes a long way.”
I certainly hope he’s right. I use a variety of methods to close the miles—email, phone calls and vacations, which in military parlance are called Rest and Recuperation or R&R for short.
I email photos, notes and letters home frequently, usually one a day. Most of my emails are brief, but sometimes they’re longer. If the occasion presents itself, I write short stories about only-in-Afghanistan moments, like a trip to a barber shop with an international staff at Camp Eggers, which is another base in the Green Zone.
As I recounted in an email home, a woman employee waved me to take a seat, then secured a barber’s cape around my neck. I gave her my usual instructions: “No. 4 clippers on the back and sides. Short on the top, but long enough to comb. A little closer at the temples, because my hair grows fast there. Trim up the sideburns a bit. Blend it all in.”
She walked around me and pulled tufts of hair here and there to gauge the length. She combed my hair back. She stood behind me, crossed her arms and looked in the mirror. “Cut?” she asked in a heavy accent.
She waited while I realized she had no idea what I just said. “Cut,” I replied.
She gave me a nice military buzz. A friend was there and snapped a photo. Later, I wrote a short dispatch about the venture, attached the photo and hit the send button.
Similar to Brandau’s discovery, on a recent trip home I learned that Sandra has kept every email I’ve sent her since I arrived in Afghanistan in November 2009. By now, she has several hundred. She told me she likes to re-read them every now and again.
And naturally, I receive emails from home with the latest news about happenings at UA, swim meets, school grades and lunches with the grandparents.
The Army provides telephone service from the Qalaa House compound. With a little planning, the 11½ hours time difference between Afghanistan and Arizona is perfectly manageable. We’ve worked out a schedule, so that Sandra, Casey and Tim know when to expect my calls.
“It is comforting to me to have you call,” Sandra tells me. “We don’t have to talk long, but I need to hear your voice and need to know you are OK.”
That sentiment, perhaps oddly, has led to an ongoing joke. Even with a phone call, each of us figures the other should only be 95 percent OK. We’d have to be in the same place at the same time to get that final 5 percent.
It’s amazing how much a simple phone call can mean. Sandra and the boys went skiing while on a family visit to Colorado last year. They called from a chair lift. I missed the call, but they left a voice message to give me a report on their just-completed first run of the day, the snow, and their plans for the rest of day.
They were so happy and excited. It was nice of them to think of me at the time. I saved the message. I’ve replayed it dozens of times.
On a recent Monday, I received a call at noon Kabul time, which was 12:30 a.m. the same day in Arizona. My son Casey, the sophomore at UA, had just finished writing the first draft of a paper about the link between red meat and Type 2 diabetes. He wanted to know if I would read and critique it.
We talked a while about his paper and his weekend. My younger son Tim had been in Tucson and they went to a laser-light show at the UA planetarium. I told him that I had gone to laser-light shows at the planetarium back when the soundtrack was contemporary Pink Floyd, rather than classic Pink Floyd.
A minute after we said our goodbyes, Casey’s paper popped into my in-box. That evening, I read it, typed a few suggestions and sent a reply. The next night, Casey emailed again. He said he had reworked a couple sections of his paper and turned it in. He expected a good grade.
Nothing short of a rocket attack would have prevented me from doing that for him.
R&Rs are occasions. I get three 21-day R&Rs a year and plan them months in advance. Because of government regulations, Christmas always falls during a blackout period for me. However, I’m able to swing other important times, such as my sons’ spring breaks and summer vacations.
My wife and I have tried to make R&R occasions a little bigger than life. In the spring, I met Sandra and my sons in Germany, where we rendezvoused with my friends Mike Tuttle and Deb Barresi, whom I met during my first year of deployment.
We toured the opera house in Wiesbaden, Germany, the city where Mike and Deb live, and my family hiked the skeleton-lined catacombs under Paris, France, among other highlights during the trip. But we also spent time playing Wii Wakeboarding, impressing each other with our newfound over-the-top electronic wakeboarding skills.
The trip was intended to provide Casey and Tim a big experience they can associate with a lot of laughter and perhaps a life lesson or two about friendship and seeking new experiences and adventures. How many of their schoolmates can claim to have hiked under Paris?
On a personal level, my deployment to Afghanistan has hit similar marks. In 2009, I was faced with reconfiguring a 24-year career as a newspaper reporter and editor when I was laid off from the East Valley Tribune. A position in Afghanistan presented a passageway to unknown new opportunities. It also provided a hands-on way for me to continue to serve my community, which I feel I did at the newspapers, though obviously the Army’s community is larger.
Before shipping off to Afghanistan the first time, I discussed the idea with my wife and sons over several months as the hiring process moved along. They understood my reasoning. They also understood the responsibilities and changes they would endure as a result. They supported the decision to go. And they’ve supported each other during my long absences.
Though we’re thousands of miles apart, we remain a close family; maybe even closer than we were before. Our communication is deeper and more thoughtful. Our time together is more appreciated.
On Christmas Day, I’ll call home and we’ll toast our good fortune with eggnog on different sides of the planet.
And like Brandau and every other deployed military parent, I’ll have a renewed appreciation for my spouse, the parent who’s looking out for the children on the homefront every day, the parent who’s doing the most to keep the kids from becoming a statistic in the next report.
Paul Giblin, of Phoenix, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist currently working in Afghanistan as a civilian employee of the Army. This is his second article for Raising Arizona Kids magazine. He also has written for The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News, among other publications. He and his wife Sandra, an architect, have two sons, Casey (19) and Tim (16).