Recently, I photographed U.S. Marines Capt. Anthony Heiman surprising his family during a joyful reunion at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kansas on November 29, 2014.
It was an awesome homecoming and as I watched Capt. Heiman leap into the arms of his family, it made me think about my friends, Sarah and Kelly. Sarah’s boyfriend and Kelly’s father are soldiers, and like many military families, they will spend the holidays without their loved ones.
Sarah began dating her soldier in August 2014. They met during a chance encounter at a nearby U.S. Army base. She accompanied him to a military ball. They spent several weeks together. Then, he received orders that he was being deployed to Iraq for one year. They sat in her apartment and cheered for the Kansas City Royals in the American League Wild Card Game. He left two days later.
Now, they are 7200 miles apart. She uses Facebook Messenger to chat with him. There is a 10 hour time difference between them. The end of his shift is the middle of her afternoon. She sends him care packages of cookies and DVD’s. He receives them three weeks later. He can’t reveal much about his assignment so she copes with their separation and hopes for his safe return.
Kelly grew up idolizing her father. As best friends, they spent years sharing their love of soccer. Her dad was an all-star goalie at West Point. She earned a scholarship to play soccer in college. They sat in front of the television and watched the World Cup. Then, her father was sent to Afghanistan in May 2010. He went there for a NATO peace conference meeting and was scheduled to return home two weeks later. Tragically, a suicide bomber, with a minivan full of explosives, drove it into her father’s convoy, killing him and 17 other people. Kelly had lost her hero.
Brave. Heroic. Strong. Courageous. Bold. Those are words we use to describe our soldiers but they also define our military families. While our troops fight in dangerous and miserable conditions all around the world, it is their families who support, sustain and encourage them. They celebrate holidays, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and graduations, apart. They care for our warriors if they return home with physical injuries or PTSD. Sadly, it is also the families who must learn to survive the grief and depression when their soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Kelly is honoring her father by writing a book about his military career. Also, she is involved with The Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund, a charity that provides financial support to veterans from all branches of the military and their families so they can further their education. The Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund, which was established by her father’s West Point classmates (USMA ’86) shortly after his death, awards college scholarships and grants, tuition for professional certification programs and non-degree programs, career counseling and mentorship. Kelly and several of her siblings have already benefitted from resources through The Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund.
I truly admire Sarah, Kelly and all of our military families. I thank you for your sacrifices, your sleepless nights, your tears, your fears, your thoughts, your prayers, your patience, your strength, your courage, and your love for our troops. Most importantly, I thank you for your service.
For more information about The Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund, please visit http://www.johnnymac.org