Military deployment causes heartache at holidays

By Marlena Hartz

There is a short pause at the end of the answering machine message. And then an outpouring. “Um. Hi Dad,” a child begins.

It is the voice of 9-year-old Victoria Garza.

“If this is you, we hope that you will be safe. … And, we love you so much,” Victoria says, passing the phone to her mother and her little brother, Ethan, who is almost 2.

Victoria’s father is deployed. Stationed alternately in Iraq and Kuwait, he is an Air Force videographer. It is the first time Victoria will spend a Thanksgiving without him.

“Sometimes she cries. She tries to e-mail him a letter every night before she goes to bed,” said her mother, Shannah Garza, who recorded the message after she missed a few of her husband’s calls.

“I think she is dealing with it pretty well. She understands that is something he just has to do,” Garza said.

About 400 Cannon Air Force Base personnel are currently deployed, according to Capt. Andre Kok of Cannon Public Affairs. The majority are in Iraq and surrounding areas, Kok said.

Left behind are husbands, wives, sons and daughters. Thanksgiving, and the holiday season, will not be the same for Victoria’s family, and many others. Someone is missing.
Until Victoria reminded her mother of Thanksgivings past, she planned on eating today at a restaurant.

“I guess I will just cook a lot of food for just three people,” a resigned-sounding Garza said.

Since her husband left in September, Garza has felt homesick for Michigan, where most of her family still lives. The sight of children with mothers and fathers nearby often brings tears to her eyes. Though she talks to her husband on the phone at least once a week, the phone calls are limited to 15 minutes. It doesn’t seem she ever has enough time to say everything.

“I try to tell him everything we’ve done for the week,” said Garza, her sentence interrupted while she soothed her crying son.

There are some things, however, Garza does not tell her husband. When he left for his first overseas deployment, their baby was just 4 months old.

“He is missing out on so much, I almost don’t want to tell him certain things,” Garza said.

The videographer missed his son’s first steps and his first words. Ironically, Garza said, the words were a greeting to him — “Hi, Dad.”

In a house nearby to Garza’s on base, another family will spend Thanksgiving missing a family member.

Mary Valverde usually relies on her husband, also her high-school sweetheart, to carve the Thanksgiving turkey. She will do that herself this year, although she did buy a smaller turkey. Her husband, an Air Force mechanic, is stationed in the United Arab Emirates.

“I had to buy a little, small turkey,” Valverde said, while her two sons played video games intently. “I still have to plan for the kids, you know. It’s a tradition.”

Some of the traditions of her own household, however, will be broken. “Every year, he (her husband) plays with the turkey — making it talk and chasing the kids around,” Valverde, 26, said, her silver hoop earrings catching the light.

Just one semester shy of receiving a degree in cosmetology, Valverde dropped out of her night classes when her husband was deployed. She still attends Clovis Community College full-time, but it will take her longer to graduate.

Her son looks shyly to his feet when asked about his father. He is more simple in his expressions than she. He misses his video-game partner.

“(My dad) is a good player. But I am better, especially on turns (in racing games),” said 9-year-old Gerardo, who marks the days till his father’s homecoming on a calendar with a red marker, and vows to “jump” on him when he returns.

Petty Officer 1st Class Danielle Smith, 25, is on the other end.

She will leave her family for the western Pacific coast on Jan. 2, stationed on an aircraft carrier with the Navy.
It makes the holidays this year bittersweet, Smith said.
“It will be the last time I will be with my family for six months — or maybe longer. I worry about not being able to come back if an emergency would happen,” Smith said, her parents beside her at a cafe.

Donna and Bill Smith will travel to San Diego for Christmas dinner aboard their daughter’s ship, the USS Ronald Reagan. Shortly after, they will return to the city to wave goodbye to their daughter from a pier.

“I am excited about the experience I will gain,” Danielle said.
Today, she is in jeans, tendrils of blonde hair hanging loosely in a pony tail, a stark contrast to her service photo, in which she stands with a rigid back, her hair pulled tightly underneath a navy and white cap.

In both instances, she seems confident, like most military women and men.

Once Garza’s husband returns from his Middle Eastern tour, Garza said he will probably re-enlist.

“He’s very happy with what he does. He is proud he can serve his country and proud of what he is able to do,” Garza said.