Utah military dads embrace change, growing families after deployment
Delta • Jason Call became a dad over Skype.
Deployed to Afghanistan with the Utah National Guard's 624th Engineering Co. 1457th Battalion, he left last June when his wife, Camille, was about eight months pregnant.
The couple's tow-headed son, Corver, was born about six weeks later, after about 12 hours of labor. Call coached and comforted his wife as best he could over a sketchy Internet connection on an iPad.
"I was feeling guilty. It was definitely hard not being able to be there," said Call. "It was also frustrating because the [transmission] quality wasn't the best, but it was doable. I was so glad to be able to see him."
Even better was the family reunion on the Salt Lake City International Airport tarmac in April when Call strode off the plane to meet his son in person.
"Perfection," Call said of holding his son for the first time. "You just can't describe it. Just the best feeling. Unbeatable."
Corver was one of 27 babies, including two sets of twins, born to 25 parents in the 624th during the unit's 10-month deployment. Fifteen of the unit's men will celebrate Father's Day for the first time on Sunday.
An estimated 1.8 million kids have been left behind as more than 2.1 million Americans have deployed to military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, according to an October 2010 report to Congress by the Department of Defense.
Nearly 1.2 million were the children of active duty service men and women. Another 650,000 had parents in reserve units, including the Utah National Guard.
Making a connection • Creating a bond between Corver and his absent dad was a concern for both Call and his wife. The couple talked often over Skype with Corver propped up to see his father. Call, 26, made audio recordings of himself reading books, which Mom played repeatedly at home.
Camille Call, 24, tucked a photo of Jason inside a plastic picture sleeve stitched to the head of a soft soldier doll made out of camouflage and encouraged her son to cuddle and play with it.
"I didn't want him to come home and have Corver not go to him or be comfortable with him," she said.
Despite the difficulties of being apart and her disappointment as Call missed some of Corver's "firsts," Camille Call said she never wished that her pregnancy had been differently timed.
"I had three miscarriages before this one," she said. "So then I prayed and prayed with this one that if he ever deployed, that I would have a piece of Jason while he was gone to help me cope. And if he didn't come home, I would have a piece of him forever."
After Corver's birth, Call found the burden of being away from his family felt bigger. It made him more cautious as he worked, and prompted him to write a letter to be given to his wife and son if he died.
Camille Call worried their efforts to keep Corver connected to his father would fall short. "I would send [Jason] e-mail saying, 'please, do not get your hopes up,'" she said.
The military prepares new families for this possibility and counsels them to keep expectations low, she added.
"But everything I said was wrong," said Camille Call. "He went straight to Jason and he was happy. It was very reassuring to know that we wouldn't have to work extremely hard at home to connect the two of them and to reconnect us as a family."
Now he gets it • Phillip Bassett, 27, also watched his wife give birth on Skype from Afghanistan last fall while deployed with the 624th. For him, coming home and adjusting to new fatherhood is twice the challenge Kristina Bassett had twins, Noelan and Hudson.
"I don't think it really sank in that he was a dad until he came home," the 26-year-old mother said. "The first two weeks were so hard. I told him it feels like you are Uncle Phil, not the dad."
Internet communication is nice, but it provides an incomplete picture, her husband said.
"On Skype, you see only 10 minutes of what goes on," Bassett said. "She'd say she was tired and I was like, 'Why? You get a nap in every day.' "
Now, after six weeks with his boys, Bassett said he understands the time it takes to care for two babies and is deeply appreciative of his wife.
"Now he gets why sometimes we have sandwiches for dinner," a half-joking Kristina Bassett said.
Married just two years, the Mona couple is also adjusting to full-time life together. His deployment was longer than the time the couple dated, and the time they lived together after their wedding day.
Bassett, who joined the Guard six years ago and re-upped during deployment, said he had some apprehensions about fitting into his wife's routine with the boys.
"For 11 months she hadn't had anybody to hold her hand and I didn't want to go in and be like, OK, this is how it's going to be," said Bassett, who is used to supervising a construction crew for the Guard.
Bassett said he got a bit of coaching from a retired Army colonel in his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation, who suggested acting "like a guest." Translation: Sit back and assess how your wife runs the household; look for opportunities to help and learn over time your role in the new family.
"It was good advice," Bassett said.
'I learned what I had' • When Utah National Guard Staff Sgt. Jeff Leavitt deployed for the first time, for 15 months in Iraq, his daughters Lynnzie and Kellie were 12 and 10 and his son, Hagen, was about 5.
Just entering middle school, Lynnzie was angry and often expressed her frustration, said his wife, Kassie Leavitt.
"I would try to explain to her that what he was doing was important," she said. "All of my kids really had a lot of anxiety. It adds a lot of stress."
Middle child Kellie, a peacemaker, managed pretty well, but sometimes drew inward. Hagen cried a lot when he missed his dad, their mother said.
Military families generally do reasonably well, as spouses and children step up to new roles and find a new equilibrium, said David Riggs, a clinical and research psychologist and executive director of the Center for Deployment Psychology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.
Talking about how the family will communicate, and helping kids understand how things will change while a parent is gone and again when they return, can ease friction, he said.
But research shows younger children may withdraw, become depressed, or act out and misbehave at school after their parent leaves, he said. For adolescents, who may be angry or resentful, problems may not surface until months after a parent returns; they may become stressed when a mother or father tries to parent them in a way that is no longer appropriate for their age, he added.
Kassie Leavitt said she tried to keep her husband up to speed and would occasionally ask him to write individual letters to the kids. By the time Leavitt came home, everyone had changed a lot.
"I learned what I had and I what I needed to take care of," he said. "Honestly, if I hadn't deployed, I don't think I would have much of a family. It changed all of us for the better."
Kassie Leavitt agrees. "Jeff really made a huge effort to be a better dad when he came home," she said. "It was almost like he had an "aha" moment."
Once home, Leavitt took a full-time job with the Guard, which he had joined in 1997, at Camp Wiliams. He moved his family from Monroe to Eagle Mountain so that he could be home most nights, instead of only on weekends.
Enriched lives • The Leavitts took Dad's second deployment a year in Afghanistan, beginning in 2008 more in stride. The kids were older and knew what to expect. Living near Salt Lake City also gave them access to support from National Guard youth programs and friends who also had parents who had deployed.
The family has had minor clashes, but they've learned to work them out and adjust their expectations.
"My kids have really embraced their status as military children," said Kassie Leavitt. "Each one of them has taken on huge responsibilities that have enriched their lives."
Leavitt said he is most surprised that two have expressed interest in their own military careers.
"I would have thought they might be turned off by it and want nothing to do with it, but they wanted more," he said.
This year, the Leavitt family will be together for Father's Day. Three days later, for their June 19 wedding anniversary, Leavitt is taking his wife to Hawaii to celebrate. "I'm making up for a few of the ones I missed, he said.