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Can’t wait for them to come home

This column involves a military acronym you may not know. It’s M-E-U, which stands for Marine Expeditionary Unit, and it’s pronounced “mew” for short. A MEU is a mobile fighting force composed of some 2,200 U.S. Marines and their Navy counterparts. At any given time, at least two MEUs are floating in international waters, ready to provide immediate crisis response. 

Last February, members of the 26th MEU loaded their Humvees and howitzers onto three amphibious assault ships — the USS Iwo Jima, the USS Oak Hill, and the USS New York. Son No. 3 was on board when they left the East Coast anticipating a six-month deployment.

Today is his 21st birthday.

And while he and his fellow Marines bring an important U.S. military presence to Europe and the Middle East, their families back home are coping with their absence. I met some of them the morning our son’s battalion landing team pulled out. That’s when Family Readiness Officer Jim Chartier spoke to the left-behind crowd of wives and children and parents: “Look left and right. Shake each other’s hand.  Meet and greet now. This is your extended military family. They are all going through the same thing you are.”

In the months since that pep talk, Chartier’s staff has served as the direct link between the deployed Marines and their family members. We get emails detailing where the MEU has been (sort of) and pictures. Sometimes you can spot your Marine in a shot. Emails like that are precious when your loved one has been without communication for days on end. 

That’s especially tough on spouses like Samantha Derenoff. Her husband is on the USS Iwo Jima as part of the 26th MEU. The pregnant mother of two meets regularly with other wives in Kilo Battery.

“We walk seven miles a week together. We push our kids in strollers, and we walk half-way to Starbucks, then come back. Kilo also does spouse’s dinners — potlucks — just to kind of socialize and give the kids time to play. We do playground meet-ups.  It helps the kids to be familiar with kids whose dads are with their dads,” she said.

Children are a big concern during deployments. Jessica Martinez has a 3-year-old daughter, Mia.

“Every once and a while she’ll ask, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ or ‘Can we go see Daddy?’ Stuff like that kind of hits the heart. She understands that Daddy’s on a big boat. Daddy’s off, you know, doing his thing, or what she likes to say — hunting bad guys. But she’ll ask to see pictures of the big boat he’s on or where he is in the world. We bought a little map, and I’ll show her,” Martinez said.

Some deployed families take advantage of a program that provides custom-printed photo dolls to children of deployed service members. Gunnar Streeter and his younger siblings each have one. He told me that his mother sent in his dad’s picture, and they made a doll from it. He added that his sister “takes her daddy doll everywhere.” Gunnar also stays connected to his dad by sending care packages.

“We give him air fresheners and sour patch kits. And candy,” he said.

Sometimes kids receive their own care packages, and they contain story time DVDs made on ship. In the United Through Reading Program, members of the 26th MEU can record a video of themselves reading a book — like Clifford Takes a Trip — and send it to their families. Son No. 3 did that for his nieces and nephew. 

On my own home front, I found that mailing packages to deployment locations can be complicated.

Me: Is this the right form?

Clerk: Yes, ma’am. Your information up here where it’s going, down here, what’s inside — quantity, ounces, pounds, value, and you sign at the bottom.

Me: What are the differences between the two forms?

Clerk: It’s pretty much the same in concept. Just some places out of country use this one, and some use this one.

Me: So how do I know which one to fill out?

Clerk: It’s probably best to just go ahead and do both.

Deployments naturally carry the stress of the unknown. Families must be content with not knowing where their Marines are. They can’t ask what they’re doing. Communication is sporadic. And when the rare phone call comes at 3 a.m.? Well, wives like Natalie Miller eagerly take it.

She said, “I think everybody has this idea of being a military spouse as this glorified, just magical experience, and I don’t think people know what we go through on a daily basis. It’s like I can’t see a 7-ton truck without having to choke back tears. Or I’ll see a guy in cammies and think, ‘Oh my gosh, we only have X amount of months before I get to see my husband in those cammies.’ I can’t wait for him to come home.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.