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Deployed Moms Prepare for Subdued Mother’s Day Observances

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2013 – Army Staff Sgt. Alisa Ballard will spend her very first Mother’s Day this weekend deployed thousands of miles away from her 11-month-old son, Christopher.

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Army Maj. Yolanda Poullard, deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, will spend her first Mother’s Day away from her 5-year-old daughter, Alahna. U.S. Army photo by Patricia Ryan

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Ballard is among thousands of military moms deployed around the world who will observe a subdued Mother’s Day on May 12, relying on technology, care packages and family photos to help bridge the miles between them and their children.

Ballard, an information systems analyst from Fort Hood, Texas, plans to Skype from NATO Camp Kaia in Kabul, Afghanistan, to her parents’ home in Woodbridge, Va. As she fusses over her own mother, for whom she has ordered both fresh flowers and a fruit arrangement, Ballard will dote over Christopher, who is living with his grandparents while both his parents serve in Afghanistan.

Ballard quickly established the ritual of regular Skype sessions and telephone calls to maintain a presence in her son’s life after she arrived in Afghanistan two weeks ago.

“He jumps and laughs and tries to grab the phone or computer,” she said, a low chuckle in her voice.

But Ballard is quick to admit that leaving her son behind for a year-long deployment, just as he is standing on his own and preparing to take his first steps, has been no laughing matter.

Ballard said she felt tremendous guilt for months before leaving -- not only toward Christopher, but also because she “felt like I was impeding” on her parents’ lives.

“There’s nothing I could ever do to repay them,” she said. “But as this has shown me, family is always there for you.”

Rather than letting herself think too much about spending her first Mother’s Day in a combat zone, Ballard said she’ll focus on her own mother and how grateful she is for that sense of family.

So when Ballard rises on Sunday, she’ll put in a typical workday, hit the gym once or twice and possibly do some online college work.

“In order for me to cope, it has to be just another day,” Ballard said. “I’m not there and he’s not here, so I have to put myself in a different frame of mind and treat it as any other day.”

Ballard’s stoicism is common among deployed mothers who are steeling themselves for what they acknowledge could be a tough day -- whether it’s their first Mother’s Day away from their children or another in a long line of missed birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sonja Parks, a medic assigned to the NATO Multinational Role 1 Satellite Clinic at Forward Operating Base Oqab in Afghanistan, said she’s planning to retreat to the dormitory room she shares with an Army captain at Kabul International Airport for a private family celebration via Facetime.

Parks will open the special package that’s still en route to Afghanistan while 9-year-old Sarah, 2-year-old Rachel and her husband, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Parks, watch from afar near Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

“My 2-year-old loves to see me open the boxes she sends me, and she’s so proud of herself about her colorings or any other things she has put in there,” Parks said. “I put them up on the wall or around the room. It’s a piece of them, with me all the time.”

The celebration will be far different from Mother’s Days at home, which for the Parks family typically begins with morning church services followed by a picnic at a nearby park.

“It’s always a very special day,” Parks said. “My husband cleans the whole house and the girls spoil me all day.”

Parks and thousands of other deployed mothers will have to break from family traditions this year. Several told American Forces Press Service they’re preparing themselves from what could be a tough day.

“It’s hard being away,” Parks said, pausing to control her emotions as her voice cracked over the phone. “You realize that you are not experiencing those things, and that you will never get that time -- those holidays or those days -- back.”

Parks said days like Mother’s Day remind her of all the sacrifices her children make for her military career.

But, like Ballard, Parks said she also knows that dwelling on what she and her family are missing only makes the separation more difficult.

“If you think like that, it makes the deployment even harder,” she said. “So you have to keep positive, focus on the mission here and remember that you will be home soon.”

Parks said she’s hopeful that the drawdown in Afghanistan will mean fewer and shorter deployments in the future. But because medics are in high demand for all kinds of missions around the world, she recognizes that the end of combat operations in Afghanistan doesn’t mean family separations will be over.

“‘Normal,’ for my family, is that either I or my husband is gone, and I don’t think that will change until were retire from the military,” she said.

Army Maj. Yolanda Poullard, deployed to Kabul as a member of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program, also is preparing herself for her first Mother’s Day away from her 5-year-old daughter, Alahna.

Since arriving in Afghanistan in December, she’s already had a taste of what to expect. She spent an admittedly miserable Christmas holiday, still in transition and without the benefit of a permanent Afghanistan address so she could receive a holiday boost by mail. Less than a month later, Poullard missed out on Alahna’s fifth birthday.

“Being away is really, really rough,” Poullard said. So for Mother’s Day, she plans to keep herself busy, going to both morning and evening church services. A highlight, she said, will be Skyping or calling her mother, husband and daughter, all in central Louisiana.

She’ll also open the two cards that arrived from home, which she set aside to open on Mother’s Day. Not able to buy a card in Afghanistan, Pollard made her own to send to her mother, along with an Afghan scarf.

On special days -- or especially hard days -- in Afghanistan, Poullard said deployed troops rely on each other’s support. Being able to offer positive words of encourage to those who need it goes a long way to “let them know that you are in that same situation, and they are not alone,” she said.

But the best way to cope, she said, is to focus on what they are accomplishing in Afghanistan. Poullard said she gets a lot of personal gratification from her work with the reintegration program and supporting initiatives for Afghan women and children.

“The bottom line is that we have a job and a mission to do: to help provide peace for Afghanistan,” she said. “It’s a sacrifice we all volunteered to make, and in the end, we are helping to make this a better place.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recognized deployed mothers -- and all other mothers and grandmothers in the military family -- in a Mother’s Day message posted on the Defense Department’s website.

“To all the mothers of our men and women who selflessly serve our country, happy Mother’s Day,” Hagel said in his message. “To the many mothers serving in uniform around the world, we thank you for the sacrifices you make every day to keep all of our family safe back home. Your hard work and dedication to raising children while defending our nation is an inspiration to all of us.”

Hagel also recognized mothers with a spouse or child serving in uniform. Many of these mothers, he noted, juggle fulltime jobs while raising children and volunteering in their communities.

“These mothers perform heroically every day,” he said. “We are truly indebted to them for their service.”


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Chuck Hagel

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Tech. Sgt. Sonja Parks, right, enjoying a recent trip to Disney World with her family, will spend Mother’s Day in Afghanistan. Courtesy photo  
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