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Deployed moms, every MAJCOM has them

Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco, with daughters Rachel (left), and Chloe. Sergeant DeMarco shares her thoughts and personal experiences on being a deployed mother in her commentary, "Deployed moms, every MAJCOM has them" (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jerry Fleshman)

Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco, with daughters Rachel (left), and Chloe. Sergeant DeMarco shares her thoughts and personal experiences on being a deployed mother in her commentary, "Deployed moms, every MAJCOM has them" (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jerry Fleshman)

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- Fresh out of high school and looking for college funds, I contemplated joining the U. S. Air Force back in 1992. My mother begged me to join the Navy because at that time, women were not allowed on ships, and she felt I would remain far away from combat.

I thought my mom was a bit silly actually. It was as if she worried about my safety simply for the sake of worrying. I'll admit that at the age of 18, during Operation Desert Storm, combat was the furthest scenario from my mind as I said my oath of enlistment. The Air Force seemed invincible during the campaign against Iraq, and who doesn't feel at least slightly untouchable at 18.

Mustering my courage and puffing up my muscles as best I could - which was difficult since I weighed a meager 90 pounds - I did my best to reassure my mom that I would be safe and departed for basic training Oct. 26, 1992.

Seventeen years later, flying in a C-17 Globemaster bound for Afghanistan, I embodied the fear that my mom expressed at the beginning of my career. Yeah, I had deployed before, but this time was different. This time I was a mom, and my greatest fear was not making it home to raise my two beautiful daughters.

Deployed moms, every major command has them. They are in every branch of the service.

Shortly after I returned from Afghanistan, a fellow mom stopped me in the hallway of the base child development center and asked, "How did you do it?" I immediately related to this young staff sergeant as she stood there clutching her small boy. With big round eyes, he rested against her camouflage top, oblivious to our conversation.

Both Sergeant Prince's son and my girls are far too young to understand why their mommies would even think of leaving them for six months or more. And while there are products such as DVDs and coloring books designed to educate these tiny family members, they still struggle to grasp time, distance and the concept of war.

I imagine older dependants have an easier time comprehending mom in combat. But, I can't imagine, however, that a mother with older children has an easier time leaving her babies. There is such a unique bond moms possess with their children. It begins the second that life initiates in our wombs.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a member of Air Mobility Command stationed at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. She's currently living in Afghanistan and I've lost track of how many times she's been deployed since her daughter Emily was born. Tech. Sgt. Kim Derr was the woman I asked, "How did you do it?"

We were neighbors in the dormitory at Lajes Field, Azores, when we met. We were both single then, and our journey to becoming mothers has only brought us closer together. Kim is a mom I admire. Her consistent commitment to the military despite the pain of being separated from her now two children is inspiring - especially because I've lived through that pain.

After I arrived in Afghanistan there was question as to how long my deployment would last. I left my home, husband, and two little honeys anticipating a nine-month tour. One night, I laid in bed squeezing two military print pillows sobbing because I may have to remain at Forward Operating Base Farah for a full year or more. The thought of not holding my children for over a year put me in a state of grief. The last time I cried that hard was when my mother passed away in August 2000.

Another friend of mine, Tech. Sgt. Maritza Freeland, who is stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and the mother of a grade school student, is facing a deployment. When I saw her at a conference in Virginia this summer, I instantly knew where she was coming from as she listed things she needed to accomplish before heading downrange. 

Maritza a multi-tasking mother and member of the Air Force District of Washington Command, was attempting to figure out how to not be at home, yet still be felt at home. In my mind, that's how moms cope with the upcoming separation.

Personally, I purchased several gifts for my girls and wrapped them for Christmas. All my husband had to do was place the pretty presents under the tree. I recorded videos of me reading bedtime stories for my 1-year-old and 3-year-old. I scheduled numerous medical appointments for my daughters to assist my husband. Yet, even though I made all those preparations and more, leaving my precious daughters was the hardest thing I've had to do in the Air Force.

While I was in Afghanistan I had the rare opportunity to teach young Afghan women photography. I've been a photojournalist for the Air Force my entire career, and these weekly sessions left an impression on me like no other job I've held in the military. At one of our first meetings one of the women asked me via an interpreter, "Where are your children?"

I had introduced myself as a mother of two girls and they could not fathom the fact that my family was not with me. My answer was, "They are home with my husband," which only led to more shocked looks and wondering eyes. I can understand why they were flabbergasted. Daily, I had to discover ways to survive the separation.

For the first time since I joined, I completely understood the concern my mother carried while I was out of her reach, and the ache she must have experienced when I was in Iraq. I am somewhat thankful that she was not alive for my Afghan tour. Her pain was spared.

My husband survived my deployment unbelievably well. Not only did our girls' clothes match each day, their hair was expertly managed every morning. Of course, what do you expect from a guy who manages to get promoted while his wife is deployed?

In the ultimate modern-day role reversal, both my spouse and I displayed great character. Our oldest daughter was quoted on a display board outside her classroom as describing her life as a military child in these words, "Mommy is saving the world, and daddy likes doing dishes and cleaning the table." I will treasure her words as long as I live. My family is my world.

Instinctually, mothers work to protect their loved ones from pain. Military mothers endure pain. We fight through the unnatural situation of being physically separated from our children so that they will grow up in a world worthy of having them.

The best part of my deployment was the day I arrived home. My husband told my girls, as he loaded them into our SUV, that they were going for a surprise. Wrapping my arms around them and nuzzling my face in the crevice of their necks is a moment best described as "the place I am meant to be."