22 month old Leo playfully hit me with his pillow.
“Daddy’s pillow!” he said proudly.
The Dad Pillow – or Mom Pillow, if Mom is deployed – is a portrayal of Mom or Dad in a portable, squeezable and most importantly washable form. My kids have one – a lot of military kids have – because they’re perfect for cuddles and pillow fights, especially when your dad is as far away as Leo in Qatar.
His father is in the Air Force and will be away this Christmas, while Leo, his brother Hiram, 5, and sister Nora, 7, are in the US with their mother, Kristen.
“Dad is gone, what do you miss about him?” I asked them.
“He’s not going to tickle us,” Hiram told me.
“We also play with him with Legos,” Nora said.
Many military families will spend the holiday alone. Nearly 200,000 service members are deployed overseas, nearly 90,000 of them in Europe, according to the Pentagon — more than we’ve seen in nearly two decades, thanks to U.S. forces backing NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine build up.
Even within the United States, many military families have had to make the difficult decision to separate. Service members report to new assignments alone while their families remain in different states to accommodate their children’s education, health care and careers for their civilian spouses.
According to the most recent annual Military Families Lifestyle Survey by the nonprofit Blue Star Families, the number one concern for active-duty military, National Guard and Reserve families is the amount of time they spend away from their families. Lawmakers and the Department of Defense rely on the group’s data to make policy decisions affecting military families.
I sat down with seven children from three families, representing various branches of the military, to discuss how they understand what it means to be separated from their parents this holiday, and what they are missing when they leave.
“I couldn’t play football with him,” said Ollie Smith, 8, as his family celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas while his father was away.
His father, a Coast Guard commander, was a rescue helicopter pilot who “did a lot of cool stuff…rescuing people from the ocean.”
Ollie and his 17-year-old sister Kelly — who also has a 16-year-old brother Owen — live on the East Coast while their father is “geo-drifting,” what the military calls a “geo-bachelor.” That meant their dad moved alone to his next job in San Francisco, while the family stayed behind. In this case, Kailey doesn’t have to start a new school her senior year, and her mom, an assistant principal who recently completed her Ph.D., can continue her career without interruption.
Kelly has been driving her brothers to school, swimming practice, and helping the family with groceries while her dad is away. It was also college decision time, and she really wanted to have her dad by her side during this critical time.
“I miss two things [of] Perspectives…if I’m struggling with an issue,” she said. “Right now, I’m just on my mom’s side and she does give a lot of advice, but I do miss my dad’s perspective on certain things —and give him a hug. ”
Silas Jones, 7, and his brother Caden, 9, traveled the world with their parents but are now stationed alone in Japan with their father, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Farrod Jones.
Silas rattled off all the places the family had lived together: “Spain…America…and…”—he paused, trying to recall where they’d last been—”… …it’s really cold in there.”
“Canada?” Ollie Smith sacrificed.
“We are acid Is it Canada? “I am teasing.
Silas nodded, but I wondered.
“Wait, no,” he reconsidered. “Germany! Germany!”
it turns out they visited Living in Germany in Spain but not sure where you live is a common peril of military childhood.
Silas said that when he finally saw his father, he would be so emotional, he would cry.
“Tears of happiness,” he said.
“I’m probably going to be sad that he’s gone,” added his brother Caden. I’m grateful he mentioned this because he also had to make sacrifices for his dad’s service, which is hard to understand when you’re 9 years old.
“I’ll probably shed a lot of tears, and I’ll miss him and give him a big hug, and I’ll say, ‘Thank you for coming back,'” Carden said.
“Since he’s leaving you, what do you want him to know?” I asked.
“I want him to know that I will always be with him and that he will love me and I will love him even when we are apart,” Caden replied.
“We love you and stay strong,” Ollie said.
“I love him and he loves me,” Nora said of her dad in Qatar, but she’s also focused and understandable on all the special occasions she couldn’t share with him during his deployment.
“My dad won’t be here for Christmas, he won’t be here for my birthday, he won’t be here for Leo and his birthday,” she pointed out.
“Are you used to it?” I asked.
“Not really,” said Nora.
Kelly is almost ready to go to college now, and she remembers nearly every other military kid sitting on the couch with her for this interview. When she was young, she said, it was difficult to accept that her father was not around.
“I knew my dad was saving people. I knew he was flying out, he had a night call, he had a duty. I knew that was happening, but I didn’t really know what he was doing. It just hurt because I Don’t understand … why he left,” she recalled.
“But now it’s more like, well, I get it … I can’t stop him or be upset about it.”