Raised on resiliency: How military parents shape their child’s experiences

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Ryann Holzapfel
  • 374 Airlift Wing Public Affairs

When I was 14 years old, at least once a week I would have dreams about anxiously waiting for my father’s return home from his deployment to Iraq. In the dream, I would be inside our home full of excitement and ready to welcome him with a huge hug.

He walked in the door and suddenly I would realize he didn’t recognize me, and sometimes, he didn’t even acknowledge me. Anxiety overwhelmed my body even though I was asleep. I felt pain in my chest as my heart ached. I would squeeze my eyes shut like I was crying before finally waking up. I would feel hurt being torn from such a vivid dream because my dad still wasn’t there, and I couldn’t be comforted by the one person I longed to be there.

As a military child, I didn’t realize what I was facing wasn’t what other children my age were experiencing. Now, I am a brand-new mother and a dual military spouse. My husband, Brendan, and I grew up as military children in two very different ways, but both of us came to understand what it meant to be resilient.

My husband’s father was active duty in the Air Force for 33 years, first as an enlisted linguistics Airmen and later commissioned into communications. During his childhood, Brendan lived all over the world, homeschooling and attending schools in Japan, Uzbekistan, Portugal and all over America. His dad deployed and went on temporary duty assignments for various periods of times throughout his life. Brendan saw changes in his location through various moves, distancing him from his extended family.

My experience as a military child was slightly different. My dad served as a reservist in the Army on active and reserve orders throughout his 28-year career as a logistics officer. I lived in Omaha, Nebraska my whole life.

My dad worked a civilian job while leaving some weekends or longer periods of time for training. When I was only a few months old, he deployed for Desert Storm for a year and again to Kosovo in 1996, but I don’t have memories of those times. What I do remember is him deploying twice for year-long rotations.

During the times my dad was gone for deployments, things were different. We missed him and we kept going, but with a lingering feeling of something missing. Our family wasn’t complete.

We made sure to write letters and send care packages full of Diet Pepsi and compressed air cans for all the sand he encountered. Our family would go to Red Cross events where they would set up webcams so you could video chat with a heavily pixelated screen, but it was real-time – something totally unheard of in 2011! We made sure he was included in our daily lives by doing activities that people didn’t normally have to do.

With the long absences came hardships for our family, but when you don’t know what normal is, you just accept the situation and press forward. I think of how I never felt we went without, or weren’t able to do something because we were in a single-parent household during that time. If we did, I don’t remember it, which is not an easy feat for any parent to pull off.

I never knew I would have my own military child. My husband and I moved to Yokota when I was about eight weeks pregnant in February 2020 and we were so excited to start a family at our new duty station. This was both of our parents’ first grandbaby! Our families all had plans to come visit Japan when he would be born and we couldn’t wait to have all three new sets of grandparents meet him.

Then COVID-19 hit.

We went through my whole pregnancy separated from our families. I would send ultrasound pictures over messages; I would show my pregnant belly to our parents over video chat and we even had a virtual baby shower.

Not only were we experiencing our entire first pregnancy without being close to our family, but now the odds of them coming to visit our newborn baby were dwindling.

We were looking forward to the time when travel restrictions would lift and we could see our families again. That time is still yet to come.

Elijah John Miller was born at the Yokota Air Base Hospital, Oct. 8, 2020, at 6:32 a.m. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and we were so joyful, but we could only share this happiness with ourselves. It was a bittersweet moment. Brendan and I were so happy to have this brand-new baby in our lives, but longed to share that joy with the people we were closest to.

My husband and I were dealt a hard situation and we handled it – something I didn’t realize in those moments. Although the situation felt unfair and challenging, we didn’t halt our lives because we couldn’t manage it.  I’m sure our parents were handed situations like these several times without us ever knowing, but as kids we accepted and worked with what we were given.

I think childhood gave us a resiliency we fell back on during our pregnancy and child’s birth. We see our son’s birth now as something very special just between us because that’s what our upbringing instilled in us.

We learned to take the challenges that come, work with what you have and then look back on it as formative life experience.

Now that we are parents, our son is a military child. Brendan and I have about two years left on both of our enlistments. Conversations about re-enlisting or extending enlistments used to just be about what we wanted for both of us, and now we have to include our son and what is best for our entire family.

I never considered before how being a military child is something that can really build a strong foundation for children. The challenges that come with being a military child come with so many rewards.

When you leave friends, you welcome new ones. When you leave somewhere familiar, you get to explore somewhere new and exciting. When you’re separated from family, you learn how to have an extended family through other military members. All are hardships that you spin into something positive for yourself.

Now as a parent, I can also see the way military children are shaped by their parents. I’m grateful to be able to fall back on the experiences I’ve had as a child as stepping stones to the new and challenging scenarios the military presents to me as a parent. I think all military parents should know the important work they are doing and understand it isn’t easy.

I texted my stepmom while writing this article to verify some timelines about my dad and when I did, I flashed back to those times he was gone.

It felt like it was just the other day we were all together living without my dad and thinking about it made me a little sad as a mom and a wife. Those events were hard for me, but my stepmom took on a huge responsibility and I think she did well. I think my dad took on a career that was demanding, but would not have done so if he didn’t think our family was strong enough to handle it.

I can only hope that I provide my child with the same positive experience as I was able to have. My parents shaped my experience as a military child. At the time, I did not know what I was experiencing would be something that would shape me into the Airman, wife and mother I am today, and for that – I am grateful.