An Army Mom’s Deployment Day: June 11, 2011

The line-up of duffle bags as soldiers ready for deployment from Ft. Carson.

Saturday was deployment day for many Army families from Fort Carson.  The site of the duffel bags lined up on the side of the parking lot was unsettling; I knew each one represented a family that was about to say good-bye.  I didn’t count the bags, but estimated that close to 300 soldiers left for a year-long deployment in Afghanistan–my son was one of them.  Although this is Josh’s third deployment, it was the first time that I was with him on the day of his departure.

We started at the company command location on post and while the soldiers stood in line to draw their weapons, which they carry with them the entire trip, the families waited outside.

Families and thier loved ones spend precious minutes together prior to the call for formation and a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting most of the men in my son’s squad and some of their wives.  Several of these couples are experiencing deployment for the first time.

Tracie Ciambotti takes a walk with her son, Josh, before his third deployment since joining the Army.

Next, we went to the gymnasium parking lot where families huddled close together, taking every opportunity afforded to them to get one more kiss or another hug.  Every direction I looked, I saw a family savoring every minute they had left together.  One soldier knelt down as his young daughter inspected his weapon; another held a newborn baby while his wife and two daughters clung to him; many soldiers posed with their families for that last photo.

A call to formation was ordered and the troops immediately responded, each one taking his place in the line-up as role-call began.    As each name was shouted out that soldier proceeded to the gym entrance, made sure his back pack fit into the required box for the carry-ons, and then disappeared into the gymnasium.

The call for formation.

Soon they emerged from the other end of the building and rejoined their families.  Josh’s squad gathered in one area as we waited for the moment we all dreaded–the final role-call.

That call came and each soldier reached for the final hugs and kisses, grabbed his weapon and back pack, and headed for the building as his name was called.  My son said, “Okay mama, I gotta go” as he reached down for our final hug.  I said, “Take care, I love you and will be praying for you every day”.  He replied, “I know Mom, love you too”.  After Josh and Alison shared their final embrace, he headed into the building.

Alison’s Facebook post Saturday night said, “There are no words to describe the pain of watching him walk into that gym. May our countdown start now!”

Tracie’s son Josh hugs his wife Alison.

Tracie Ciambotti is the Co-founder of Military Families Ministry (MFM) and mother of an Army sergeant. Her previous blog contributions:

Deployment Week: A Mom’s Realities

Deployment Week: Packing, Pictures and Prayers

A Day to Honor Mothers: They Serve in Many Ways

How Do You Define True Patriotism?

When War Gets Personal

An Army Mom Connects Military Families and Churches

Deployment Week: Packing, Pictures and Prayers

My husband Jeff, me, Josh, and his wife, Alison, at dinner Saturday night.

We are down to the final week before my son leaves for his third deployment since he enlisted in the Army in June of 2005.  Josh spent two twelve-month tours in Iraq and will spend the next year in Afghanistan.

Josh and his wife, Alison, have been extremely busy the past few weeks; there are many things to do in preparation for being gone a full year.  Alison resigned her employment so she could spend every possible minute with Josh before he leaves.  She told me that the few weeks prior to deployment are the hardest for her because each day she wakes up dreading that it is one day closer to saying good-bye.

I feel the same way.  When he deploys we all go into “deployment mode”,  which means we must be very proactive with controlling our emotions, not overreacting to news, keeping busy,  and praying a lot more.

Josh and Alison from their pre-deployment pictures.

Two weeks ago, they had their pre-deployment pictures done and I was able to participate.  This was bittersweet: while it was fun to see different poses, emotions, and faces (especially with Josh who can be quite a challenge for picture-taking), it was sad when I thought about why it is so important to have fresh pictures before a soldier goes to war.

Alison will be spending the next year with her parents in Montana.  The house she and Josh own in Colorado Springs has been rented to another couple transferring back to Fort Carson.  Last week was moving week and all of their belongings are now in my basement except for the personal items that Alison will take with her.  They will spend their last week together–until mid-tour leave–in a hotel close to Fort Carson as Josh still has to work this week.

Their dog, Ginger, is here with me and she too will  miss Josh terribly the next year.  When Josh deployed to Iraq the last time, Ginger whined for weeks and would wait by the door for him to come home.

Ginger - their dog who is now with me.

My husband, Jeff, and I enjoyed dinner with Josh and Alison the past two nights.  We live an hour and a half away from them, so I won’t see Josh again until this weekend–when he leaves for his deployment.

I am so thankful to have Military Families Ministry to keep me focused this deployment.  I have established close personal relationships with so many military families over the past couple years and we support each other through deployments.

Citadel Mom Cycle Completed – A Blue Star Mom Emerges

The Bravo Company sophomore clerks stand behind the first sergeant, a junior, as a knob checks in on Matriculation Day 2010.

It’s been a month since we were in Charleston for our son’s commissioning service, the Long Gray Line graduation parade, and then graduation. Since that event filled weekend, there have been many new experiences. The most significant for me: passing along my contact lists and notes from the past three years as the coordinator of the Georgia Citadel Parents Group.

The new coordinator is Lynda Goodfellow. Her son, Niles, is a rising sophomore. Lynda will do a terrific job making sure the new families are informed of the new life their child is entering.

Passing along the information is a mixed bag of emotions for me. I know the friendships I have formed the past four years will continue, but I’ll miss the regular contact with the school, the families and regular visits to Charleston to take part in the various big weekends. The role of coordinator and also, for the past 2 years, Area Rep coordinator for the Citadel Family Association felt more like a calling to me.

I have a master of divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. During my time there, I took a number of classes in pastoral care and clinical pastoral education, which is the training you go through to be a chaplain. In many ways, I used what I learned in seminary to be a supportive caring presence to the families I came into contact with the past several years.

Writing for the Off the Base blog has helped me ease into the eventual graduation of my son and his move into his new role as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. By writing down what I’ve learned, I hope to help future classes of Citadel cadets and their parents navigate the fourth class system.

Dorie and Nelson pose in front of Murray Barracks after the Class of 2011 receive their rings. Photo by Stanley Leary.

By the number of hits the most recent entry, A Letter to The Citadel Class of 2015, is receiving, I can tell the preparation for Matriculation Day has begun. The official information for the Class of 2015 has not been posted yet, but that doesn’t keep incoming cadets and their families from searching for all the advance information they can find. The Success Packet from 2014 can be found online, but will be revised for 2015.

All academic institutions have their cycles. For military schools in particular, the cycles are very predictable. Beginning in late April and going through July, families begin the preparation process of sending their student off to become a cadet.

Some parents begin to do their own research. Since my name remained on the Citadel Family Association web site as a contact, I have received emails and phone calls for the parents doing the early research. I’m sure the new contacts in each position are now getting the early inquiries too.

In the next few months the Class of 2015 will be (or SHOULD BE) running, doing push ups and sit ups in preparation for Matriculation Day in August.

The rising 3rd Class cadets, or sophomores, are looking forward to not being a knob. Some are preparing for their new role as part of the cadet command system, attending various military camps, and in general enjoying their summer.

The rising 2nd class cadets have similar outlook, but they know they will have even more privileges and will have more responsibility in the cadet command. The juniors who have set their sights on becoming a Bond Volunteer Aspirant and eventually a member of the Summerall Guard silent drill platoon, are spending their summer working out (or SHOULD BE) to prepare for the tough year ahead. These cadets have a tough road ahead of them.  They will hold rank which is like having a full-time job outside of their class work, and they are treated like knobs by the current Summerall Guards.

The rising 1st Class cadets spend their summers looking forward to the day in the fall when they receive their rings, one of the best days in the life of a cadet. If they are on an Army ROTC scholarship, many will attend the Leader Development Assessment Course (LDAC) held each year at Joint Base Lewis McCord. There are other training courses and events for all the branches of the military. The cadets who are not entering the military begin to see their time as a student is coming to an end and begin to focus their energy and thoughts to what they will do in the “real” world after graduation.

Each step of this process means the cadets and their parents and guardians are learning their new and changing roles. It’s a time of life when our role as parents shift a bit. We are about to watch our children launch from adolescence into full adulthood. Some will make that transition completely for others it will be more gradual.

The Griggs/Leary Family attend the annual “Roswell Remembers Memorial Day” celebration. Dorie, left, with daughter, Chelle. Photo by Stanley Leary.

In the past month, my son attended at least three weddings of his classmates with more on the horizon. Some former classmates are still hunting for jobs. Most are beginning to realize they spent four years looking forward to graduation and now they miss their classmates and the life they complained about for those four years.

My son reported to Ft. Benning May 30, Memorial Day. He is living in an apartment complex in Columbus, Georgia where at least 20 other classmates from The Citadel are also living. Each young man is serving in the Infantry or Armor branch of the Army.

We spent our Memorial Day morning at a large ceremony in our hometown. I met several other Blue Star Mothers that day. When the national anthem was played, we all stood with our hands over our hearts and tears in our eyes. I’ve attended this ceremony before and didn’t feel as connected to it as I do now.

The cycle continues. As the cadets and their parents prepare for the next school year, I’m moving on from my role as a support person to Citadel parents, to a student of how to be a supportive parent to an officer in the U.S. Army. I know this next role will last a lot longer than the previous one.

Ad Campaign Aims at Helping Blue Star Families

Multiple deployments and Permanent Change of Station (PCS) are two of many stresses unique to military families. There’s a Public Service Ad Campaign aimed at letting the Blue Star Families know they are not alone.

For help, military members and family members can call 800-273-8255.

As an aside, two contributors to Off the Base who are Blue Star Mothers are part of a Blue Star Mothers event Saturday hosted by the White House. Congratulations to Dorie Griggs and Tracie Ciambotti both excellent examples of supportive and proactive military moms.

A Reservist’s Parents Pay a Price for the War

The Holt Family. Photo courtesy of VAntage Point.com.

Army Reservist Katie Holt wrote a heartfelt entry about her enlistment after the 9-11 attacks and what happened to her parents  after she  deployed. The full article is available in the Department of Veterans Affairs electronic newsletter VAntage Point.

Holt, in retrospect, wishes she had given her parents this advice as she left for Iraq in 2004:

The next year or so of your life is going to suck. In fact, you’ll probably find yourselves mad at me for joining the Army. My war is your war and war is hell. . .on both fronts. There will be times when you’ll have no one else to turn to but each other. Embrace it and be thankful that at least one other person gets it. Go to therapy, you’ll need the support.

She writes about visiting her father at his nursing home to share the news about the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden and the war was worth it:

I realized reassurance wasn’t what mattered. I leaned over, kissed my dad on his head and said thank you. Military parents and family are sometimes forgotten, their sacrifices during wartime ignored and support for them can be miniscule. My family, and many others, will forever be changed by the ongoing conflicts, and to them I say thank you.

Highlighting the sacrifices of all military family members and helping civilians understand and support them is the mission of this blog. Thank you Katie and Mr. and Mrs. Holt.

Growing Up Military Overseas Meant Certain Change

I’m pleased to introduce a former WUSF colleague who grew up in a military family with three sisters and both parents serving as officers. I asked her to reflect on growing up overseas.

By Natasha Samreny

In 2001, my dad retired from the Air Force, and CENTCOM activated my mom around 9/11. We stayed in Tampa, and any dreams of returning to life overseas faded more every year.

My mom dressed us up in coordinating outfits for every major out-of-country flight. We were easier to spot in case we got separated.

I liked moving. We PCS’d (Permanent Change of Station) when one or both of my military parents were assigned or offered new jobs in another location. They decided based on their professional goals, our family’s input, and of course where the government said they were needed. But for my sisters and me, the moves ensured change and growth: traveling, making new friends and adventures in another country.

I never thought of the U.S. as home, I was young when we left for Panama. Happiness meant playing with my sisters in the tropical rains. Our tan bodies and sun-bleached hair thrived on mangos and pineapple juice. Germany was colder, and “home” changed from a two-story house-on-stilts to a modest apartment converted from old Army barracks. But we adjusted because that’s what we knew.

Two major factors eased the moves: my parents, and base living.

My mom immigrated from Ecuador as a child, learning English on the fly. My dad grew up in Pittsburgh’s mixed Hill District, where Saturday morning bakery and sandwich-shop aromas carried countries through the streets. Both educated dreamers from loving families, when they sat us down to talk about our next trip, challenges became “opportunities”. We spent holidays trekking through Europe, catching our fondest memories.  Bases overseas offer ready-made community living for American families relocating to foreign countries. We all came from somewhere else. Like kids at summer camp, our time was short, so we made the most of it.

When we returned to the States, a decade passed before I called it home. I felt like I was betraying everything I knew; if I accepted this final destination, I accepted the suffocating thought that I didn’t know how to change or start again without relocating. This was the normal I had come to expect and need from life.

A New Blue Star Mom Shows Supports for Fallen Soldier

The Patriot Guard Riders line the drive to shield the fallen soldier's family from any possible protestors.

As I get ready to transition from the mom of a cadet at The Citadel to the mom of an U.S. Army 2LT, a fellow Citadel Ya Ya suggested I join the Blue Star Mothers (BSM), a nonprofit for mothers with children in the military. I signed up just last week. 

Two days later I received an email from the BSM asking members to please attend the funeral for a fallen soldier from our area, Spc. Gary L. Nelson, III of Woodstock, GA. The Westboro Baptist Church group was threatening to protest the proceedings and they wanted to get as many people as possible out to show support for the family and keep them from seeing or hearing any protesters.

The Patriot Guard Riders wait outside the sanctuary for the family of Spc Gary L. Nelson, III to arrive.

I posted a note to my Facebook page to ask anyone who was in the area to attend too if they could.  I received a flood of supportive responses from friends, many of them mothers of cadets at The Citadel. Since I had never attended a military funeral, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  As the mom of a future Army officer, I felt it was my duty to show the Nelson family support.

I arrived at the church an hour and a half before the funeral.  The crowds already formed along the road to the church. After parking in a neighborhood across the street, I walked to the church. Along the way, I met a man and his young son. He was a Baptist pastor who lived in the neighborhood.

I began to take photos of the gathering crowd. Some wore patriotic clothing, others carried signs of support for the Nelson’s and many had American Flags. They represented all different generations. When I crossed the street and saw the crowd gathered there, my eyes began to tear up for the first time since arriving.

Johnny “Swatt” Badger of the Patriot Guard Riders instructs the people gathered to salute if you are a veteran or put their hands over their hearts as the family passes.

A huge gathering of the members of the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) was just inside the parking lot.  Scores of motorcycles of varying sizes and types were lined up.  Many of them had American Flags flying. The riders were gathered in a group apparently receiving instructions for the morning. Once the group broke up a line formed at the rear of a car as 2 people began to hand out large American Flags to the PGR members. They took the flags and began to line up on both sides of the entrance to the sanctuary of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.

Also watching the events as they unfolded were a group of ROTC cadets.  I could tell they were cadets by the leadership patch on their arms, but I didn’t know which program they represented. I said hello and asked where they went to school. They were all with North Georgia College and State University, which has an excellent Army ROTC department. After a brief time of good-natured kidding (The Citadel and North Georgia are rivals) we had a great conversation. I took a group photo, which by then also included a few members of the National Guard who came over to say hello.

Army ROTC cadets form North Georgia College & State University and visiting National Guard members wait in the parking lot of the church for the family to arrive.

Like most of the crowd they did not know the fallen soldier, but the cadets and a hand full of National Guard soldiers heard about the funeral and the rumored protest and decided it was important for them to come and support the family.

I moved on to take photos of the scene unfolding in front of the church. The Patriot Guard Riders were evenly spaced from both sides of the front door of the sanctuary and along the sidewalk. Each person held an American flag on a long white flag pole. They wore their leather vests, which displayed patches of the organizations, and/or ideals they represent.

The Honor Guard during their practice.

At quick glance I could tell many of these mostly men were Vietnam Vets.  A few children members joined the tribute. A little farther away from the front door a group of JROTC cadets began to take their place along the sidewalk. As I took photos my eyes filled with tears. I can’t imagine the grief the Nelson family feels. Seeing so many people come out to support the Nelson family filled me with emotion. I hope the family will be able to find some small comfort from all those who gathered to honor their son and to thank them for their ultimate sacrifice.

Members of the Georgia Department of Defense pay their respects.

It was time for the family to arrive so I moved to the entrance of the parking lot and met a number of people who came from some distance to support the family. People with large flags lined up along the street. At one point a woman stepped forward and asked the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance together. A group of easily a couple hundred put their hands over their hearts and recited the Pledge.

An announcement was made that the family was almost to the church. A representative of the Patriot Guard Riders stepped forward to instruct us that current and former members of the military should salute and all others could place their hands on their hearts. I watched as this group of strangers quietly followed the instructions.

The Patriot Guard Riders surround the area where the service is taking place.

When the procession of police escorts, funeral home vehicles and family members arrived they were greeted with scores of supporters at attention quietly paying tribute to their son.  As cars with family and friends drove by where I stood, I could see the passengers and drivers were all filled with emotion, wiping the tears from their eyes.

Once the family and visitors were inside for the funeral some people began to leave for the Georgia National Cemetery. I decided to go as well. Along the 20 minute ride from the church in Woodstock to the cemetery in Canton, I could see members of the local fire department on the overpasses hanging American flags.  A group of people waited in a shopping center parking lot along the route.

The Army ROTC cadets stand at attention during the Honor Guard practice prior to the family arriving to the cemetery.

The cadets from North Georgia College were at the cemetery along with the Honor Guard and representatives of the Georgia Department of Defense (GDoD). I took photos as the honor Guard began to practice.

When the family arrived, they were escorted by the Patriot Guard Riders.  Once again the PGR took their flags and lined up around the gathering spot for the service. The Honor Guard, cadets and the GDoD members stood at attention.

Fortunately, the protestors never arrived. The Nelson family and friends could say good bye to their soldier in peace.

Previous entries by Dorie Griggs:

The Making of a Military Mom

Mom Readies for Son’s Military College

The Citadel: Year One a No Fly Zone for Hovering Parents

How The Citadel “Ya-Yas” Came to Be

Learning Leadership and Ethics at The Citadel

The Citadel Trained Me as Well as My Son

The Citadel: BVA’s and  Summerall Guards

The Citadel: Recognition Day and Ring Weekend

Care Packages for Cadets: The Citadel Heroes Project

The Citadel Bond Renews Parents’ Long Time Friendships

The Citadel: Unofficial Tips for Families of Incoming Knobs

The Citadel: Saying Good-Bye, But Always Connected

A Sister, a Mom, A Family Prepares for Military Life

Survival Skills to Succeed as a Citadel Mom

Here’s an open letter to the Westboro Baptist Church  from another contributor asking the church members to stop protesting fallen soldiers’ funerals and instead protest at government venues where policy is changed.

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