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A Mom's Deployment

A young Soldier’s tour in Afghanistan created hardships for her, her infant daughter and her own mother. But she would do it all over again.
In 2011, SSG Melisa Foster deployed to Afghanistan with the 230th Signal Company, Tennessee Army National Guard. Photo from SSG Melisa Foster
In 2011, SSG Melisa Foster deployed to Afghanistan with the 230th Signal Company, Tennessee Army National Guard. Photo from SSG Melisa Foster

For a parent whose son or daughter has enlisted in the National Guard, the news of an upcoming deployment can come with overwhelming emotions—everything from pride to fear—not knowing exactly what that means for their family. They’ve got lots of questions. Where is the Soldier going? What will they be doing? Will they be safe?

So parents contact the National Guard Call Center. They’re set at ease when they speak directly with Operator and Staff Sergeant Melisa Foster, a 23-year-old Soldier with the Tennessee National Guard who has served for five years and who has been through exactly what other parents are wondering about. She tells parents her personal story of how joining the Guard, despite its challenges, had a positive impact not only on her future but also on the lives of her own mother and daughter.

In July 2011, Foster volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan. It would be one full year spent away from her mother, her siblings and, and above all else, her infant daughter, Juliet. Even though she knew she would miss many firsts—including some of Juliet’s first words—she wanted to make her family proud by serving her country.

 

READY TO SERVE

Deployment came suddenly. Foster’s orders came less than two weeks before it was time to go. “I packed up my apartment in three days and moved everything,” she says.

It was so quick, in fact, that she didn’t have time to really think through all the steps she’d need to take to prepare herself and her family for her yearlong absence. It’s something she has since had a lot of time to consider.

Before Foster deployed with the 230th Signal Company out of Nashville, TN, she asked her mother to take care of Juliet. Her biggest fear, she says, was losing that new mother-daughter bond. “I was worried about the transition,” Foster says. “I was worried my daughter would forget about me while I was away.”

Foster’s absence was difficult for her mother, Maria Stepan, too. Maria was raising five kids on her own (with four others already out of the house) and running two full-time businesses—a house-cleaning company she has run for more than 20 years and an apartment rental company. “I had to do everything [for the kids],” Maria says, as translated by Melisa. “Some days, I’d forget to eat breakfast, because I was trying to feed everyone else and get to work.”

At first, when Foster deployed, she called home every day. The frequent calls home began to dwindle once the realization hit her that she was losing touch with her daughter. “Some days, she’d just press buttons on the phone,” she says.

To cope with separation anxiety and depression, Melisa found herself compartmentalizing her military life from civilian life. She stopped asking her mom what was going on at home. “I didn’t want them to worry,” Foster says. “I didn’t want to put extra pressure on them.”

Maria agrees that a lack of information about her daughter wasn’t always a bad thing. “There were a lot of things I didn’t want to ask about—like if she was in danger,” Maria says. “I didn’t want to know.” 

What she did know, though, was that her daughter was dedicated to her service, and that this deployment was the culmination of a decision she had made three years earlier.

 

BEGINNINGS

In 2008, Melisa had just turned 18. Without any notice, she signed up with Tennessee’s 118th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (MPAD) in Nashville after a friend urged her to join. She hadn’t discussed her plans with her family. She just heard the “calling” and headed right to the recruitment center.

“The education benefits were attractive, and since I wanted to go to college full time, joining the Guard would help me pay my way,” she says. It would also take the financial burden off her family.

Foster’s brothers and sisters were mostly supportive of her joining the Guard, even though they joked and called her “loca” (crazy). Maria says that in Mexico, it is uncommon for women to join the military, so the idea of her daughter joining was a new concept for her family.

Basic Training was difficult at first for Foster. Things were done differently here. She would have to push her life back home aside and push her mind and body to the limit.

“I don’t like to quit ever—even if I am suffering,” Foster says. “I stuck with it. Eventually, it seemed normal. I wasn’t scared anymore.”

Having followed in the footsteps of her father—who had served in the U.S. Army during WWII—Foster sent a photograph of herself to him from Basic Training as an E-2 before he passed away. “He told one of my brothers he was proud of me,” she says. “Although we were never able to bond over it, I feel connected to him.”

As a new mom raising her 13-month-old daughter, she followed a daily routine, carefully balancing her family life with her military service. Everything was in its place. Then, she had the chance of a lifetime.

“I have this opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan, and I really want to go,” she told her mom. “Will you help me?”

“Si (yes),” Maria answered. It was a short conversation with her determined daughter. There was no changing her mind.

Beneath her calm demeanor, Maria says she really felt nervous and scared. Although she had immigrated to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, Maria still spoke Spanish as her native language and did not fully understand what her daughter would be doing. She didn’t understand the Guard or the U.S. military. She didn’t know if her daughter would be safe. 

“I'll watch out for her,” Foster’s platoon leader told Maria, alleviating some of her fear.

 

INTERNATIONAL CONNECTION

Foster turned toward the camera to calm her own nerves. With a broadcast journalist Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), she found comfort in the USO’s United Through Reading Military Program, which enables parents to record videos of themselves reading books to their children. She used the service to try to reconnect with her daughter. “I also have a recordable book of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas I picked up from the USO that I sent to Juliet,” she says. “I did this so she wouldn’t forget me.”

Although many parents of deployed Guard Soldiers turn to the Family Readiness Group when they need support or have questions about their child’s military service, Maria says she was too busy to use their resources or respond to their letters after Foster left the country.

Maria doesn’t use computers. She knows about Afghanistan only what she hears firsthand, on TV or over the phone. Instead, she relied on very limited information provided to her from Foster’s phone calls and from the small handful of local Hispanic news stations. The TV channels mostly reported about instances of violence in Afghanistan during the deployment, including some misinformation that would keep a Soldier’s mother up at night. 

But Melisa was stationed on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, one of the most secure U.S. military installations in the region. She was not facing combat.

 

THE PREMONITION

“I first learned about the attack through my mother. She had texted, asking if I was in Kabul and if I was OK,” Foster says.

In October 2011, a Taliban suicide car bomber attacked an uparmored shuttle bus, known as a “Rhino,” in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The attack killed at least 12 Americans, including Soldiers and contractors. This was the same Rhino that Foster had been on between U.S. military bases six times prior.

“I picked up a copy of Stars and Stripes in the dining facility. All of a sudden, I saw a picture of a burnt vehicle on its side. It looked like the same Rhino we had taken a couple weeks earlier,” she says. “I called the contacts I had in Kabul, and they confirmed that it was the same Rhino. I was shocked.”

Back in the U.S., Maria says she heard about the tragedy on the news and immediately feared for her daughter. All Foster could do was rehash the story over and over. Had there been signs foreshadowing the event?

“We were traveling back to Camp Phoenix, Kabul, at night after a mission. The MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle] in front of us ran over tank tracks before one of our stops,” Melisa says. “The Rhino bus followed. The MRAP suffered one flat tire, and the Rhino suffered three. We were stuck outside of a base in a heavily populated area—vulnerable. One of the Soldiers that was with us, a CW2, immediately began working on the tire of the MRAP. We were there for about an hour until the MRAP was back up. All the females were shuffled onto the MRAP back to Camp Phoenix. The rest of the crew made it back safely several hours later.”

Reflecting on the attack weeks later, Foster wondered if they had been followed that night. Had enemy forces noticed the vulnerability and planned the attack accordingly?

“I cut the article out,” she says. “I still have it, folded and tucked away in a notebook I carried all through the deployment.”

After learning her daughter was safe, Maria stopped watching the news.

 

TWO WEEKS IN NASHVILLE

Maria had always heard that when someone shows up at your door and tells you they have a message about your child, a Soldier, it was usually bad news.

When Foster was on leave in April 2012, she didn’t tell her she was coming home. She wanted to surprise her mom in person. Maria was late for work, so Melisa’s brother, who had picked his sister up at the airport, told his mom he had something “very important” to tell her about Melisa and to wait at home. When he arrived, he asked his mom to come outside.

Startled and overwhelmed with happiness (and frustration), she embraced Melisa as she stepped toward her.

Juliet, on the other hand, seemed confused.

“She wouldn’t hug me,” Foster says. “The initial homecoming was great, but my daughter didn’t understand what was going on. How are you supposed to reconnect with your kids in just two weeks?”

Two weeks on leave came and went quickly. A couple of months later, on June 3, came the hardest part of her deployment. Foster missed Juliet’s second birthday.

“I sent her pictures of the party we had with the whole family—all the aunts and uncles—so she wouldn’t feel left out,” Maria says.

During deployment, Foster lost touch with Juliet. “When she was hungry, she would go to my mom instead of me. It took my daughter a long time for her to see me as her mom again.”

“I’m never going to get that year back,” Foster continues, her eyes swelling with tears, “but I would do it all over again.”

 

THE ROCK

But Foster wasn’t alone. She had bonded with another Soldier, Sergeant Nicole Elizabeth Smart, also originally from the 118th MPAD, whom she had met at a drill in January 2011. “That weekend at drill, I had APFT,” Foster says. “It was six months after I had my first daughter, Juliet, so Nicole ran it with me to motivate me. Over the next couple of drills and during our Annual Training in March of 2011, we were always together. I was very fond of her sense of excitement and motivation. We both had an eagerness to learn and explore. We loved our jobs—telling people’s stories. We cooked together for our unit’s family day. And we were both going through some troubling times in our previous marriages.”

The Soldiers’ unit, the 118th MPAD, was supposed to deploy to Iraq in May 2011, when they received sudden notice that they wouldn’t be leaving after all.

“Nicole and I were extremely distraught that we had prepared ourselves for something that was not going to happen,” Foster says.

Taking the initiative, the Soldiers volunteered to deploy with another unit, the 230th Signal Company. They were picked up a couple days later. “When we deployed, my daughter, Juliet, was 13 months old and [Nicole’s] son, Carter, was 2,” Melisa says. “We ended up in different locations. I was on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, and she was on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. We still made it a point to try and reunite whenever possible.”

One of the challenges of deployment both women endured was missing their children. Their bond kept them going through the tough times.

“Nicole was one of my ‘rocks’ while we were overseas,” Foster says. “We shared common moral views, and we could talk about any issues we were having.”

 

BACK ON HOME SOIL

After first stepping off the plane back in Nashville, Foster and her fellow Soldiers were released to hug their families briefly before returning for paperwork duty, tying up any loose ends after deployment. Foster found it difficult to concentrate. She was restless. Then, finally, she and her friends were released to go home with their loved ones.

When she returned home, she felt the strain of transitioning back into civilian life. “Because I was focused on reconnecting with my daughter, I ended up [inadvertently] shutting out my friends,” she says.

Even through the difficult transition, she forged ahead, leaving again shortly after returning home—this time for military school—Warrior Leader Course in Eastover, SC. “I love the challenges and like knowing there might be an adventure waiting for me in the future,” she says.

Her professional drive in her career is also evident. With the Nashville-based National Guard Call Center, Foster has been the primary Spanish-speaking call center representative for the past three years.

“Melisa is more confident and mature since joining the Guard,” Maria says. “I am very supportive of it now because of the opportunities it has given her and how it has changed her.”

In October, Foster celebrated her five-year anniversary with the Guard. She has risen through the ranks to an E-6, having been recently promoted. She is now part of a unit of Soldiers all ranked E-5 or higher. Although her first daughter, now 3 years old, has a speech delay that prevents her from expressing her feelings, Foster is confident Juliet understands her dedication to serving her country. Foster also has a second daughter now, whom she named Kendall, who recently turned 5 months old.

Foster says she plans on staying in the Guard long-term, mentoring other young Soldiers and eventually retiring. If her daughters choose to join the Guard when they grow up, she says, “I would be extremely supportive, just like my mom was!”

“I respect the choices of my children and decided to support her,” Maria says about her daughter’s decision five years ago to join the Guard. “All my children are special, but she is special because she knows what she wants and where she is going.”

When asked if she would let her grandkids join the Guard one day, Maria replies: “I would say, ‘Let them go!’ This is a very good opportunity for them.”

Through Foster’s service, the Guard has forever changed the lives of three generations.

“Be grateful for every experience,” Foster says. “You can learn something from every one.”

– Leslie Benson, Senior Associate Editor, GX magazine 

  


 

TIPS TO PREPARE FOR DEPLOYMENT OR TRAINING

“There are three aspects I think really need to be considered before a deployment or military training,” Foster says. “Household duties, finances and communication. Everyone’s scenario is different. Some people are single and won’t have any bills back home or a house or family to take care of. In my case, I had a daughter to provide for. I made sure that I had a monthly allotment set up for her expenses.”

Don’t have a lot of time? Here’s a checklist of some things you need to handle before going.

  • Have a plan before you leave.
  • Cross your t’s. Fill out any necessary paperwork with your apartment leaser and civilian job so you are covered while you’re gone.
  • Secure childcare, if necessary, and iron out household duties. If there are kids involved, be sure your spouse or caretaker is aware of their responsibilities with the kids, and plan how they are going to take care of them and who is going to help them.
  • Figure out your finances. Create a plan for who is going to pay the bills and how are they going to get the money. Avoid confusion by using online banking and online bill pay.
  • Communication is key. Set up a Skype account (or a similar long-distance Web camera, chat, texting or international phone call service) in advance; this will be especially helpful for people who do not normally use computers.
  • If you’re married, see a counselor or therapist pre-deployment to learn how to communicate effectively over a long distance.
  • Use the USO’s United Through Reading Military Program to record yourself reading bedtime stories to your kids or other family members on recordable books or video.