TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., May 16, 2017 —
The Leidholms are just like any ordinary young family. They get up early to deal with the happy chaos of getting themselves ready for work and preparing their two small daughters for the day.
Dad and Mom tag-team -- he changes the baby's diaper and ensures their 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter is dressed and clean, then feeds the cats and dogs. He heads out the door by 6:30 a.m.
Mom spends a few more moments nursing their 8-month-old daughter, then leaves to drop the kids off at day care and get to the office. Nights and weekends are spent doing the usual stuff: housework, homework, laundry, running errands, watching television and, of course, sharing time with each other.
They are a typical American family, except for one significant difference: Staff Sgts. Kyle Leidholm of the 60th Maintenance Squadron and Nicole Leidholm of 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs both serve their country in the Air Force here.
Dual-Military Couple Challenges
The Leidholms work a fairly normal duty day, but unlike most families, they know their normal routine could be dramatically interrupted at any time. Kyle is an aero repair technician, servicing heavy-lift transport aircraft. Nicole is a photojournalist and the noncommissioned officer in charge of media relations. They are aware that one or both of them could be deployed overseas with little notice. Like all military personnel, they are ready to put the needs of their country above all else.
Dual-military marriages -- a service member married to another service member -- are becoming more common, with the highest percentage of these couples being in the Air Force, according to a 2008 Defense Department study on military families.
Both Kyle and Nicole joined the military when their college plans didn't work out. Nicole was still in technical school when the two married. Kyle was stationed here, and Nicole joined him soon after. The girls were quickly added to the growing family.
The military treats each member of a dual-military couple as an independent entity, despite the fact that the couple makes decisions jointly. Unfortunately, this can be problematic at times.
"Work is definitely a lot harder now than it was before kids," Kyle said. "Working extended shifts and nights is harder. The balance of family and job tend to blur."
"It’s hard trying to explain to my oldest why Dad hasn't come home from work yet, or why Dad is going to work at night," Nicole said.
"She's very curious and notices everything," she added. "When he was on 12-hour days, I was the one coming home after work and cooking dinner and getting her ready for bed on top of when I was pregnant. It's definitely an added challenge to balance life and work duties."
Child Care Costs
Often, there can be difficulty fitting child care expenses within a family budget.
"The cost of child care is not cheap," Nicole said. "We use family child care, so our costs are a bit more than at the child development center on base, but I like it. There are usually a smaller number of children, and they take care of my girls like their own."
"On top of those costs, infant care is even more," she continued. "So having two kids in child care was almost like sticker shock when I first went back to work after maternity leave. Fortunately, we both received promotions around that same time so our 'extra money' goes toward the cost of child care. The child care expenses a little more than doubled for each week with the new baby."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, deployments are the rule, not the exception, for military families. Research from a 2009 RAND National Defense Research Institute study shows these deployments often have a more negative effect on dual-military couples' retention and family life than on than on service members who aren't married to another service member.
Kyle shared an experience he had when his wife was deployed.
"I had appliances die on me during a base exercise and I had to figure out child care by myself without help from my spouse on the other side of the world," he said. "Just the day-to-day Air Force obligations affected both me and my wife. And sometimes, it carried over to the kids."
"Our first deployments didn't really have an impact on our oldest daughter," Nicole said. "She was too young to remember. The deployments were harder on us. I deployed first in 2014 to Southwest Asia, and it was a lot harder on my husband, because he, all of a sudden, was a single dad."
She added, "I also do all the finances, so I had to keep on him to pay the bills. At the time, he worked in a shop that did eight-hour days, but more often than not, those days became 12-hour days [with] no notice. They also worked a Panama schedule, but because I was deployed, they worked his schedule to be Monday through Friday. Thankfully, we also had a flexible child care provider that could help us out."
A Panama shift is 24/7 coverage with four teams working two 12-hour shifts on a rotating pattern -- two days on, two days off; three days on, three days off; two days on, three days off.
Child care most notably affects the retention rate of dual-military couples. Although the RAND study shows both male and female service members perform at the same levels on the job, females are more likely to leave the military citing family responsibilities. Male service members are more likely to cite financial concerns or career opportunities.
"I'll play it enlistment by enlistment," Kyle said. "I would like to retire out of the military, but we will see how the next 14 years go."
Having supportive leadership and an understanding and flexible work environment is vital to alleviate the stressors of a dual-military family.
It's the only thing that can make it so I can continue to serve and still be there for my kids and wife,' Kyle said.
"It’s extremely important," Nicole said. "Recently, when I was on a trip, I was supposed to be back after four days and ended up being away for seven. My leadership asked to make sure Kyle was OK and if he needed anything. It's good to know if there was anything needed, they were there for us. It's hard to focus on the mission if my family isn't cared for when I'm away.'
Today's technology makes it easier to keep in touch while being deployed for any length of time and lessens the anxiety of separation. Nicole's first deployment was for six months.
"We were only three years into our marriage -- young by any standard. So it definitely put a strain on our marriage," she said. "Skype was a big one when I was deployed, but now -- and even when I was [on a temporary duty assignment] -- we used Facebook Messenger to video chat. We also used a free texting app when I was deployed. I've now learned that my phone carrier has an overseas plan that I would look into using the next time either of us is deployed. We also sent a lot of care packages."
Family Care Plan
Having a family care plan is a mandatory military requirement to protect children of military families when military parents must answer the call to duty.
"Dual and single military families can face some unique challenges," said Air Force Master Sgt. Hugh Fetla, the 60th Comptroller Squadron’s first sergeant.
Fetla served as first sergeant to both of the Leidholms, who are in different squadrons.
"Deployments and unaccompanied assignments can make child care and maintaining the marriage very difficult," Fetla said. "Mission permitting, the member's leadership can work with the dual and single military families when assigning deployment cycles and work schedules. But sometimes, the mission does not allow leadership to be 100-percent accommodating. When this happens, one of the most important items the dual and single military families need to have is a family care plan. This will ensure the children are taken care of during a medical emergency or period of separation."
"I think Kyle has had to use it. I’ve almost had to," Nicole said. "Every year, his unit recertifies the FCP. We also have to keep it updated, such as when our provider moved -- we changed providers -- and when we had our second daughter."
With time in service, promotions and the gained experience of military life, there is an increased understanding and acceptance.
Seeing the Big Picture
"I can see the bigger picture of what the mission needs," Kyle said. "It makes it easier to get on board with the decisions leadership makes. I wish it had been relayed to me differently when I was a younger airman with kids."
"We have a lot more responsibilities now as noncommissioned officers than as airmen," she said. "Now, we are taking care of people at work and at home. I guess in a way, for me, becoming a mom first helped prepare me to be a leader."
Though the demands of dual military couples can be stressing, Kyle and Nicole’s unwavering commitment to each other and to their children make it possible to readily face any challenge.
"Having us both in [the Air Force] is cool, because we understand the job that each of us does. Sometimes, spouses don't know what their significant other does every day at work," Nicole said. "It also made the deployments easier in my mind, because we knew the locations and our resources.
"It's also cool because we can talk military jargon with each other and have an understanding of some of the stressors that may be going on," she continued. "At the supervisory level, we can bounce ideas off each other and learn together. It's also neat to almost get an inside seat to see how another squadron operates."
Kyle said Nicole makes him think bigger than maintenance when he talks with her about his airmen and how to help them. "She always has that important phone number when I don’t know who to call," he added.
Nicole is proud of her daughters, especially her eldest, who at only 3 years of age has seen one or the other parent go through two six-month deployments and three temporary duty assignments.
"It's amazing how resilient kids are," she said.
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