Double duty: heroes at home

We honor the sacrifice of heroes serving abroad, especially during the holidays, and thank the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces for preserving peace, freedom and democracy.

But what about the sacrifice of those left behind? How does the choice to serve affect the lives of spouses, children, parents and siblings left to hold down the fort? Is the price of “double duty” really worth it?

The Nugent family looks up

Courtesy photos

The Nugent family waits for dad, Ryan, for his return from duty.

“Daddy, airplane!” shouts an excited 23-month-old Tuckerman Nugent, as he hears that unmistakable engine sound. Chin to the sky, “Tuck” sees a passenger jet cruise over his house and assumes — every time —that his Daddy is flying the plane. But Tuck’s Daddy won’t be home for a while.

Bedford resident and Manchester native United States Air Force Major Ryan Nugent, 38, serves in the Air National Guard, 143rd Airlift Wing, Rhode Island. He has been away from his wife and three children since Aug. 14, serving his fourth deployment, somewhere in the Middle East, for Operation Inherent Resolve.

Major Nugent’s civilian occupation is corporate pilot, so even when he isn’t serving abroad, he’s gone for long periods of time. This makes the fly-by an even more important idea for Tuck to hold onto.

Major Nugent’s wife, Katie, 38, is a forensic interviewer at the Massachusetts Middlesex District Attorney’s Office and an adjunct professor at Merrimack College in Andover, Mass. She said that Ryan being away has become part of how they live — his first and second deployments were for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and his third in Iraq.

“Ryan’s grandfather was 1st Lieutenant Paul J. Nugent, a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilot, and he’s always wanted to be a pilot, too,” Katie said. “Ryan has worked tirelessly to advance his military and civilian careers, and now flies the coveted C-130J Super Hercules. It’s a critically important four-engine turboprop transport aircraft that takes cargo, medical supplies, special ops teams, wounded warriors, humanitarian aid — anything, really — to and from any location, outpost or remote base.”

Millicent Nugent, their spunky 5-year-old, can tell you more about this, and any other fighter plane, than most adults. She jumped into the conversation upon hearing the word “Hercules” to confirm that it’s the plane her Daddy flies.

“Millicent was six months at Ryan’s second deployment and three for his third, so she’s more aware of things this time around,” Katie said. “Each time he leaves we reevaluate what to tell the kids. It’s tough to factor in what they’ll hear at school, from friends, on TV or elsewhere.”

Holding tight to her Daddy Doll, a 12-inch comfort item with a full-length photo of Major Nugent on it, “Millie” shared a story about how he rescued a man in the desert who “really needed to get to a hospital.”

“He’s over there to help people and take care of the Earth,” Millie said. “I feel happy when he saves people, but miss him. He doesn’t get to do lots of stuff back here.”

Love heals

When they explain the value of sacrifice, the children are selfless about missing birthdays, anniversaries, games, father/daughter dances and more.

“They have mixed feelings, but understand,” Katie said. “Ryan and I tell them how proud we are of how they continue to move forward, which enables us to do our jobs so well. We all find our groove and go, go, go.”

“I wonder why other people don’t have daddies to help and why they need mine,” Millie added. “Mostly, I’m really proud. People in the military are special.”

Hearing Millie talk of Major Nugent prompted big sister Andie, 8, to join the conversation. She talked of her experience and, clearly, she helps keep the team on track.

“I wrote a narrative in school about Daddy’s last deployment and what it was like when he came home,” Andie said with tears in her eyes. “We waited at the base for a long time. We saw his plane land and then Daddy came off, smiling. I hugged him as hard as I could and cried, a lot.”

In anticipation of Major Nugent’s homecoming, Andie has written a song called, “I’m Super Human,” and looks forward to serenading him.

“It’s bad when he misses stuff — he even missed his own birthday — but I’ve been looking at pictures, hugging my Daddy Doll and trying to be strong for Millie and Tuck,” she said. “I hope we’ll have Daddy back for Thanksgiving and Christmas.” (Just prior to press time, the Nugent family was reunited as Ryan returned home safe and sound.)

Katie hugged Andie and thanked her for being such a strong girl. “Andie has been amazing,” said Katie. “This time, I’ll bet she breaks down sometime after Ryan is home, probably one random night when he’s putting her to bed, in a release of emotion she’s been holding in for the past four months. Who can blame her?”

Faith is the key

Katie said it is difficult for her and Ryan to balance family, military responsibilities and careers, while staying true to themselves.

“Even though this is our fourth deployment, you think, ‘I’ve got this,’ because I’ve done it before, but it’s different every time,” she said. “Technology has advanced, but whether we connect with Ryan or not, we never question his dedication to us, and he has faith in our commitment to him.”

With weeks to go, Katie and the kids created a paper countdown chain, started talking about a family vacation and special days each will have with Daddy, and look forward to him by their side for “regular” things, like going to the bus stop or family movie night.

As for Katie, she’s still in “go go go” mode, just like he is, but working for a different — though equally important — cause.

“I worry about Ryan’s health and how we’ll deal with what he’s seen and done over there, when he’s thrown back into the wonderful challenges of family life,” Katie said. “While it can be isolating for Ryan, you feel pretty helpless as a spouse when you know there is only so much you can say or do. No matter what, we just want him back.”

Major Nugent committed to the Air Force for at least 20 years. Five remaining years likely means two or more deployments. Katie said their family plans to take things “one day at a time.”

Loyalty is a Stone family foundation

Courtesy photos

Aaron and Andrew Stone

Another heroic story of sacrifice emerges from New Hampshire native Sarah Stone, 35, who is mom to Andrew, 2, and Blake, five months.

A Leukemia survivor, Sarah goes into “robot mode” when Laconia native Aaron Stone, 30, serves abroad as an Army Reservist. His first tour was a lengthy 14 months in Afghanistan that began in 2011.

“Aaron proposed to me while home on his only two-week break,” Sarah said. “It was hard to be apart, but I knew right from the start how much Aaron loved this country and was willing to put his life on hold for it.”

When Aaron returned from Afghanistan, they got married, welcomed Andrew and started to advance their careers — Aaron a police officer and Sarah a teacher, in Manchester.

All too soon, Aaron was up for reenlisting.

“He could have said ‘no, it isn’t worth it,’ but Aaron is fiercely loyal to the military,” Sarah said. “His level of dedication is pretty amazing.”

Now, approaching the midpoint of his second deployment, somewhere in the Middle East, E6 Staff Sergeant and Engineer Aaron Stone has been gone since June and is not scheduled to return until May 2017.

In the last few months, he’s missed many things, including Andrew’s birthday, and has barely had time with Blake, who the family will baptize when Sergeant Stone returns.

“Blake is so little he doesn’t know what’s going on, but Andrew does,” said Sarah. “He’s smart and, generally a happy and easy-going kid, but he’s had a difficult time. It’s emotional for everyone.”

Sarah talked fondly of their support network, but admits certain situations have been particularly difficult.

For example, Sarah “got rid of” Sergeant Stone’s pickup truck, but didn’t realize how deeply Andrew associated that truck with his Daddy. Now, every time Andrew sees a pickup truck, he’s sad.

Sarah also has to choose her words carefully when talking to the boys. Sarah didn’t want Andrew and Blake to assume “work” meant “Daddy has to go away for a long time,” because when he returns, he’ll go back to “work” as a police officer.

“I think about how long kids wait for things, like a birthday or Christmas, and how they process what we tell them,” she said. “I started calling his deployment a ‘trip.’ I try to keep it simple with, ‘Daddy drives big trucks and takes care of people,’ which seems to help.”

Communication is critical

Sarah said that since 2011, technology has created more opportunities to stay connected.

“I’d wait days to hear from Aaron and we’d have a short conversation that cost more than $1 per minute on a phone card,” Sarah said. “With smartphones and the internet, video calls are a reality. We have no idea where he is, but it feels like he’s not so far away.”

The military program, United Through Reading, has also meant a lot to the Stone family. Its goal is to ease separation by having deployed parents read children’s books aloud via a DVD for children to watch at home.

“The United Through Reading program is a blessing. Aaron records himself talking and reading the book, signs and dates it, and both magically arrive at our door,” Sarah said. “The boys have a collection of really nice books they’ll cherish forever.”

Knowing there is purpose behind what the Stone family is sacrificing is what Sarah says is “so important” to “keep things together.”

“It’s sad to see anger in the world when my husband is fighting for all that we have, and it’s heartbreaking to think he might question why we’re giving up so much,” Sarah said. “We just want him to know we’re OK and we can’t wait for him to come home.”

A history of service

Courtesy photo

Alexis Durkee did not want to say goodbye to her sister,

Having recently moved to Mason from Nashua, the Durkee family of six is no stranger to change. Lynda and Russell Durkee, 42, their son Rusty, 23, Stephen, 17, and youngest daughter Alexis, 7, have not seen big sister Lance Corporal Samantha (Durkee) McKone, 21, since July 6, 2015.

A United States Marine, LCpl McKone left for Japan in August 2014. Her specialty is Military Police, the Accident Investigation Division. She visited, briefly, early in summer 2015 to get married and quickly returned.

“We had Samantha’s bridal shower via video call,” Lynda said. “She was up on the TV screen as we hosted 75 people at our house. Everyone opened their gift and showed her. It was the best we could do.”

Lynda reflected on why Samantha feels such a commitment to serve, noting her early introduction to the military.

“Her grandfather was in the Air Force, another grandfather the Army, her uncle the Navy, another uncle a Marine,” Lynda said. “There were many years she dressed as a soldier for Halloween. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her interest in military college.”

“I remember attending my brother’s boot camp graduation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and there was ‘Sam,’ a little bit of a thing at age two, standing in the famous yellow footprints,” Russell recalled. “Serving is in her heart. We’re not ecstatic about her being away, but we support it. She’s my hero.”

Supporting the choice to serve

Rusty said Sam believes that anyone who is able should give back to the country.

“As a female Marine, you can bet she has faced challenges, but Sam continuously perseveres,” he said. “Being apart has made our relationship stronger. We text a lot, like when she bought a car over there and asked my advice. It’s difficult not seeing her though.”

Stephen, who also feels a duty to serve, plans to enlist as a Marine.

“It’s great to talk to Sam about what to expect,” he said. “I think her being away is hardest on Alexis though. It probably stinks when it’s Rusty and I playing games, doing her hair or painting fingernails, instead of her big sister.”

The Durkee family writes letters, ships items that remind of life at home and sends crafts. Technology has also helped.

“Even Alexis knows how to video call Sam,” Lynda said. “On a weekend morning, I’ll find her awake and eating breakfast with Sam on the screen. The time difference makes it the middle of the night in Japan, but Sam gets a bowl of cereal and eats with Alexis anyway.”

LCpl McKone recently chose to extend her active- duty contract to have husband, Gage, added to her overseas orders as a civilian base employee so they can be together.

“I thought she’d be home for the holidays and was devastated to learn she’s not; I cried for a week straight,” Lynda said. “It’s not like the five of us can just jump on a 6,933-mile flight. The last time Lynda celebrated Christmas with her daughter was 2012. They are hoping to see Sam in January or February.

LCpl McKone receives a new duty station in December 2018 and will go wherever the Marines need her. With a limited number of female military police positions, the Durkee family has no idea where Sam will be, but takes comfort in how passionate she is about service. 

Jessica Ann Morris is managing director of jam:pr, a strategic communications firm providing PR, marketing and writing services.

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