SAN ANTONIO -- It's a good sign when the jelly beans are nearly gone: Daddy's coming home.
April Arnold and her three girls filled a jar with nearly 180 jelly beans before Lt. Col. Kris Arnold was deployed overseas -- one jelly bean for each day he was gone.
Each day, they would take turns eating one of the colorful candies from the jar. It was a sweet way to think about dad and to count down the days until he would be back in their arms.
The jelly bean jar was just one trick Arnold picked up from her Family Readiness Group years ago when her daughters were much younger than they are now. In her husband’s 21 years in the armed forces, he has been deployed a total of four times, and he just returned home from Afghanistan last month.
Although it’s never easy, Arnold knows what to expect when her husband is away, and she shares that wisdom with other military spouses of the Army’s 14th Military Intelligence
Battalion stationed at Fort Sam Houston.
The waiting game
“Can I run to the store?” is something Andrea Greene would often ask herself while her husband’s infantry unit was deployed in Afghanistan in 2009. Missing a phone call was heartbreaking -- on both ends of the line. That’s why she slept with a phone under her pillow.
Is he safe? When will she call? Where in the world are they, anyway? All are questions that torture military spouses who are left home, often alone or with children. Communication, Greene said, is the biggest hurdle when a loved one is overseas.
“You don’t feel so powerless when you know what’s going on,” Greene said.
Now a family readiness support assistant at Fort Sam Houston, Greene said the ultimate purpose of the Family Readiness Group is to help the spouse and the deployed soldier to communicate better.
They regularly send out email updates on the battalion's whereabouts. That way, spouses know when to expect a call -- or they know why they haven’t received one. The group also coordinates videoconferencing and Skype dates so that the spouse and soldier can get some much-needed face time.
Skype, Arnold said, is a life saver. She and her husband tried to Skype about every other day while he was deployed. She missed having somebody to talk to. She missed his company. Communication, she explained, helps to nip anxiety in the bud before it gets too overwhelming.
So far away
But not everyone is fortunate enough to communicate with their loved one so regularly. Army Spc. Yacqueline Tolico, originally from Las Vegas, only sees her fiance’s face about once every two weeks. The first time they Skyped was also the first time he got to see his new baby boy. He cried.
Tears were pretty ordinary in the first couple of weeks after the baby was born. Tolico said her fiance’s infantry unit was deployed to Afghanistan in July, just four days before the baby arrived. She went in for a checkup all by herself, and she was told that she needed to be induced.
“Just not having anybody around -- you just need somebody you love,” Tolico said. “Especially with my first child, his first child. I just wanted him to be here and hold my hand and tell me everything is going to be OK.”
Because Tolico and her fiance are not yet married, Tolico does not have access to a lot of programs that are available to military spouses. But since they are both in the Army, the child does receive some services, and the couple has plenty of people looking out for them.
“No news is good news” has become a slogan for military spouses, Greene said. If they don’t hear from their spouse, they should assume everything is OK. “Don’t be glued to the news, because you will just drive yourself crazy.”
It’s just one of the lessons Tolico has taken to heart while the father of her 4-month-old boy serves overseas. Although they try to text or chat on the phone as much as possible, she admitted that anxiety sometimes gets the best of her.
“I tend to freak out,” she said. “If a few days pass, I freak the hell out .”
A network of support
Tolico has been able to count on her comrades at Fort Sam Houston. Like her non-commissioned officer, Tammy , who took time of leave to help out when the child was born. Her unit also threw her a baby shower and has no problem with allowing the baby in the office.
Arnold explained that people in the military don’t waste time making friends. And the Family Readiness Group is a great place to find friends.
“It’s a support group,” she said, “but it’s a group ... for people to share thoughts and ideas.”
Once every couple of months, the group gets together for a social outing. Sometimes the families go to the Amazing Jump Trampoline Park off I-35 or gather for holiday parties and other team building activities.
David Kelly, a retired Marine, said he’s never seen another man at any of the Family Readiness Group activities. But his wife, who just returned from Afghanistan last month, ordered him to go.
“I think they understood how awkward I felt,” he said about the dozen other women and families at the trampoline park. “They made me feel very welcomed.”
Having been deployed four times himself, Kelly has been on both sides of the long-distance telephone calls. When he was deployed, he said he always knew when he would be able to call home. But with his wife deployed, he said it’s a lot of waiting around, not knowing exactly when the phone might ring.
While waiting for those phone calls and taking care of three teenage boys, Kelly said he has grown to understand why his wife appreciated the Family Readiness Group as much as she did while he was overseas .
Everyone needs someone to talk to while they’re “holding down the fort,” Kelly said.
Family Readiness Groups provide support for military spouses and their families on bases throughout the world. The groups usually have a support assistant but rely mostly on their members to organize social events. Visit the Army's FRG website to find out how to get involved.