With his wife traveling quite a bit for her duties as a reservist with the 910th Airlift Wing at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, Bill Davis of Boardman got used to her sometimes being absent for the weekend or for up to two weeks at a time. So when Senior Master Sgt. Loretta Davis deployed to Iraq in January of 2008, he felt somewhat prepared for the months ahead. Even so, there were parts of suddenly being solely responsible for two kids, ages 5 and 12, and a new home that Bill Davis hadn't expected.
"I've got kids to talk to, but there's no real adult around," he said, explaining that the time between the kids' bedtime and his was hard. "Those are the times you really feel it."
Another unexpected problem occurred when Bill tried to take care of bills and accounts that were in Loretta's name. Some companies wouldn't even let him pay bills that weren't in his name. "It was a pain," he said. "Things like that you don't think about."
Loretta deployed to Balad in northern Iraq. A health services supervisor, she became the non-commissioned officer in charge of the medical control center, the central hub of the military hospital there. The hospital treated all branches of the military in addition to civilian contractors and local nationals.
"I was involved in every facet of the hospital," Loretta said, adding that she dealt with the administrative side, as she is not a doctor or a nurse. "There were good days and bad days," she said. Seeing pediatric patients was particularly hard for her because they reminded her of her own children back home.
Fortunately for Loretta, she was able to communicate with her family by phone, e-mail and regular mail.
"I talked to them every Wednesday and on the weekends," she said.
But it wasn't always that simple. The huge time zone difference made it difficult for Loretta to call home at the ideal time, what she calls "the golden hour" between dinner and bedtime. There was another timing issue as well - her call time was limited so that other people could use the phones, too.
While deployed, Loretta missed her son's 13th birthday. "That was difficult for me," she said. However, her family was still able to "see" her using Skype, a free software program that lets users video-chat with other Skype users over the Internet.
Once Bill found out about Skype, he immediately went out and bought a webcam. "When you can see each other, it really helps," he said.
Loretta also had access to a webcam, so her family was able to see streaming video of her and chat with her at the birthday party.
At the time of Loretta's deployment, there were resources and support available to the Davises through the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. However, the Congressionally-mandated Yellow Ribbon program was so new at the time that the Davises didn't know about it until after Loretta had returned home.
Master Sergeant Jackie Zawada, the coordinator of the Yellow Ribbon program at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, works with the airmen and Family Readiness Office to provide programs, events and other types of support to airmen and their families.
The program is for those who deploy for 90 days or more and involves five steps: pre-deployment, deployment, 30 days post-deployment, 60 days post-deployment, and 90 days post-deployment.
The first step is designed to make sure airmen and their families understand the benefits they have access to, such as health care.
The deployment step is designed to help families cope with the absence of the airmen as well as the additional responsibilities that family members, particularly spouses, have to take on. For example, the Hugs program provides special pillowcases to airmen and their families. Each pillowcase has a picture heat-transferred onto it. The airman gets a pillowcase with a picture of his or her family on it, and the family gets a pillowcase featuring a picture of the airman.
"We're trying to make sure they know we care about them," Zawada said.
The Yellow Ribbon program also provides webcams that families can sign out for the duration of the deployment. The families can use the webcams along with Skype for video chat, or for creating video recordings or pictures to send to airman for when they can't connect in real time.
Another program that's seeing a lot of change and development recently is the Key Spouse program. The goal of this program is to get spouses to form a network of support for each other. The spouses would call to check up on each other and get together to socialize and talk about their experiences. Zawada hopes to also implement how-to classes to teach spouses how to manage their new responsibilities during deployment.
There are resources available for kids, too. For younger kids, the program provides books and DVDs that help kids understand what deployment is. For older kids, the program provides things like scrapbooks, disposable cameras, and journals so they can record their experiences and share them once the parent returns from deployment.
The post-deployment programs help airmen with things like re-integration and connecting with personnel within the Department of Veterans Affairs. "We make sure they get whatever the help is they need," said Zawada.
"Here at Youngstown, we've really moved forward with our programs," Zawada said, adding that the Air Reserve Station has taken the lead for the Yellow Ribbon program.
She said that one of the best parts of the program is seeing family members' faces light up when they find out about the resources and support available to them. "I have a really good job," Zawada said.