Children Left Behind
By Sherri Williams
News21 / Syracuse University
Kaden Hollenbeck’s firm handshake, energetic personality and animated voice belie that of a typical 7-year-old.
His maturity mixes with his spirited and sad greeting: “My dad is in Iraq!” he shouts with both pride and pain swirling in his voice at the family home on the Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash.
Kaden’s father, Josh Hollenbeck, is an air traffic controller in the U.S. Air Force who went to Iraq in February, leaving a squad of small children behind who crave to have him around and need him at home.
Kaden misses his camping partner.
Easton, 3, wants someone to watch monster trucks on television with him.
Brooke, 21 months, can’t say how much her father’s deployment affects her. But it is clear she feels his absence.
Josh, 29, is due home in September, though.
Josh’s children are among the nearly 1.9 million kids who have a parent in the military. Adjusting to the absence of a parent away at war is a rising issue for military families as troops face deployments and redeployments.
The absence of a military parent affects the entire family, said Shelley MacDermid, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “For families, certainly separation is very difficult.”
Children with deployed parents sometimes suffer from anxiety — changed eating and sleeping habits, a decline in behavior to an earlier age, and low performance in school, MacDermid said. And Josh’s children sometimes don’t listen to their mother. Dad tries to discipline them over the phone.
The kids have visual reminders of him all over their home. The screensaver on the family’s computer is a photo of Josh in his military uniform. When her daddy’s face flashes across the screen, Brooke lunges toward the desk.
She bounces, points and shouts, “Da! Da-da!”
Nearby, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Josh in uniform — smiling — sits on a barstool next to a counter.
The life-like cutout can fool a visitor for just a moment.
The replica of Josh is a Flat Daddy, an image of a military parent created for children so they feel closer to their absent parent.
Relatives purchase the cutouts from the Flat Daddies website for around $50 after submitting a photo.
Easton plays with it and has even accessorized it with necklaces. Kaden sometimes watches television with the Flat Daddy. Brooke kisses its face.
Easton has had the hardest time with his father’s absence, his mother said. He is angry with his father for being gone and has refused to talk to him on the phone.
Josh hopes his departure hasn’t made his youngest son feel abandoned.
“I was gone all of a sudden, to him anyway. I was really worried that he felt like I left him and that he was mad,” Josh said in a phone interview from Balad, Iraq. “It made me feel bad. I wanted him to understand that I didn’t just leave him. I had to come here and do my job.”
Now, Easton is starting to understand his father “is coming home, and he’s coming back for good,” said his mom, Amber Hollenbeck, 27. “But at first he wouldn’t talk to anybody. I did get nervous at first. Other moms said their kids did the same thing.”
For now, Easton occasionally holds the Flat Daddy close the way he wishes he could embrace Josh. Sometimes he carries it around the house with him, Amber said. “It really helps on these days that they’re missing daddy and don’t get to talk to him. He cries to it and laughs to it.”
Easton also sleeps on a pillowcase with an iron-on picture of his father’s face. Josh’s image is the first thing Easton sees in the morning and the last thing he sees at night.
The cozy images of dad still don’t replace the rough and tumble play that little boys want with their fathers, said Daralyn Hollenbeck, Easton’s grandmother.
So Daralyn Hollenbeck, 51, and her husband Greg Hollenbeck, 52, drive to Spokane twice a month to see their grandchildren, especially so the boys can benefit from the masculine presence of their grandfather.
Older children, like Kaden, find empathy with their peers who have had parents deployed, Daralyn Hollenbeck said. Attending an elementary school on the base has helped Kaden.
“It makes him feel like he’s not alone,” Amber said. “It becomes more of a natural thing. It’s like this is his job, everybody does this and it’s OK.”
Yet, when a military parent is gone, the absence does sometimes show in a child’s development, said Holly Nelson, 25, whose husband is also in the Air Force. She is also Josh Hollenbeck’s sister.
Holly’s husband, Tim Nelson, 26, has been deployed twice and is home now. When their son Cian, who turns 2 this month, began to talk, “The only time he would say words was when he was talking about daddy,” Holly said.
However, when his father returned from deployment in May, there was a surprising adjustment period, Holly said. “For a couple of days he treated Tim like company.”
But now that his father is home for good, “He does everything Tim does,” said Holly, who also lives on the base with her husband and son.
Holly worries that when Josh returns he may be overwhelmed by all the things the children will want to do with him: emulate his mannerisms, sink into his hugs, hold his hand and simply look into his eyes.
Kaden especially is excited that his father will return in September. Josh arrives just in time for Kaden’s eighth birthday, Oct. 10.
LITTLE GIRLS WILL MISS DAD AGAIN
Redeployments like the Nelsons experienced are not unusual. The phenomenon will soon split a family in another part of Washington state not far away, in Coulee Dam, Wash.
There, on another day this summer, 22-month-old Antya fills a room with the energy and curiosity only a lively, curious and growing girl can possess. She roughly plays with the family dogs as they wince under her stinging pinches. She touches the computer screen as she sits on her big sister’s lap.
But when her father Justin Cawston, 25, walks through the door her world stops.
She sprints across the room of their home on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and wraps her little arms around his neck and holds on tight as he twirls her around the room.
Her smile spreads wider across her face as she sinks into her safe place, daddy’s arms.
In September, Justin will use those same arms to carry a gun in Afghanistan, where he will be with the infantry in the Army National Guard. He is among the 704,000 troops that have been deployed more than once, according to Defense Department data.
Antya, the little girl who came to know her father through Skype calls and a computer monitor the first time he went to war in Iraq, will soon touch and kiss a computer screen again and lean toward small box speakers to hear his voice more than 6,700 miles away in a war zone.
When Justin went to Iraq, Antya was 6 months old. He missed her first steps and words.
Now that he is home Antya often plops her little feet into her daddy’s oversized boots and flops around the family’s home.
Justin’s wife, Rayna Cawston, was there to be both mother and father to Antya and Rayna's older daughter Mylia, 7, from a previous relationship, while Justin was in Iraq. After her father left, Mylia’s grades slipped. During the first month of his absence she fell below the average for her grade level. When she missed her father she would often go to the elementary school office to get a hug from her maternal grandmother, Virginia Lezard, who works at the school.
Mylia also took on more responsibilities at home. Her mother leaned on Mylia to help with little sister. Mylia took on more chores, including her own laundry.
The roles that shift in families during deployment sometimes actually strengthen them, MacDermid said.
“Families are being tested and learning that they can survive the challenge,” MacDermid said. “Children can demonstrate more leadership in the home and develop a relationship with the at-home parent that is different than what they had before.”
While Mylia spent more time with her mother, she still missed those special things she did with her father. They used to make indestructible forts together in their home that Antya couldn’t tear down. Mylia’s mother tried to build them with her, but little sister could easily crush them.
Mylia is proud of her father and shows off his medals from Iraq and souvenir dollars with images of Saddam Hussein. But Mylia is still a little girl. She gushes with pride and raises her hand high to show off the rosy finger where her daddy came to her rescue and plucked a painful splinter.
When dad was gone, routine school-time rituals reminded Mylia of her father’s absence.
“Sometimes when we said the pledge in the gym … I really missed my dad and that’s when I thought of him,” Mylia said.
Rayna is trying to prepare the girls for Justin to be gone again. "I'm telling them he came back once and he'll come back again," she said.
Still, Rayna worries that the deployment will affect the girls, especially Antya. The toddler is talking more now and can express her feelings. Antya is also potty training and Rayna fears she will regress once Justin is gone.
"She doesn't understand the concept of time either. I don't know how I'm going to comfort her," Rayna said.
Mylia’s hero will soon leave the family again and head into battle. The girls don’t understand what it means for their father to be a combat soldier or the reality that he may never return home from war.
Mylia and Antya only know their father as the daddy they love. And every day they soak in his hugs, kisses and tickles before he heads into combat.