Military service takes a toll at home

Some teenagers can’t wait to leave their house and go as far from their parents as possible. But for those who have loved ones in the military, the months between deployments aren’t enough to make up for all the time lost.

Fairmont Junior Alex Meyer knows this all too well.  Meyer’s father, Dustin Meyer, is in the National Guard and served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, each for almost year. While he’s gone, Alex and her family get phone calls from him every week or two and an email every couple of weeks. “You always wait for a call, and you just want to make sure they’re OK when they call,” said Meyer.

The lack of communication is the hardest part for Meyer and her two siblings. “It’s hard not being able to turn to him when we need something,” she said.

Dustin Meyer is a member of Green Beret Special Forces and is typically gone for 10 to 11 months at a time. “The hardest part for him is missing out on 11 months of his kids’ lives,” said Meyer. “He misses us growing up.”  Family parties, birthdays and “a lot of events in our lives that he can’t ever re-live” pass by while her father is overseas.

Fairmont Junior Justin Kihn understands the pain that comes with having a parent who must miss important events. Kihn wrestles for the Firebirds, and many of his friends come out to support him, but many times one of his biggest supporters isn’t in the stands. Kihn’s father, Randy, served in the Marine Corps and is now a First Lieutenant in the National Guard. “The hardest part for me is when he’s gone and he misses a lot of my wrestling,” said Kihn.

Benjamin Riches, a 2010 Fairmont graduate and now a private in the U.S. Army, feels prepared to miss out on family events. Yet he still predicts that being apart from his family will be the hardest part for him when he gets deployed. “The part that the Army can’t really prepare you for is the separation,” said Riches. “For me personally, that was where I faced my biggest challenge.”

So far Riches has gone through 10 weeks of basic training, opting out of Advanced Individual Training in order to start school at Wright State University in January. “I think that we’re all prepared for the combat aspect of deployment,” he said. “We’re all prepared through our training and practice.” It’s “being away from the normality” of everyday life that Riches has found the hardest so far.

Riches knows the distance from his loved ones will grow easier with time, but until then family support is invaluable to handle the separation. “My family is my crutch. They support me in all I do, and that support has gotten me through everything from the Tear Gas Chamber during training to sitting at the top of the 45-foot rappelling tower,” said Riches.

For Riches, having a family that supports his choice to join the military is very important as well. “They’ve been the biggest supporters in terms of my decision,” said Riches. He has always desired to be a part of what he calls “one of the most honorable professions there is.”

From a very young age, Riches said, “I was shaking the hands of men and women in uniform, letting them know that even to an 8-year-old, their service is greatly appreciated.” Riches wanted to serve in the military since he first saw pictures of his grandfather, a captain in the Transportation Corps, in the green “Class A” uniform.

Meyer also leans on her family as a strong support system while her dad is gone, but she also finds comfort among the other families in her dad’s unit. Before long, Meyer says, all the individual families in the unit morph into one large family, with everyone supporting each other through good times or bad. “You know their kids, you know their wives, you hang out with them, you call them when you’re upset,” said Meyer.

Meyer, being the oldest of three children, tries to always be strong for her younger siblings.  “They look up to me to be stronger, but when they’re not around, it’s easy to break down and be unsure of yourself and always be worried about them when they’re not home,” she said. “You have to act like everything’s going to be OK, but inside, you’re panicked.”

But all that fear dissipates when her father comes home. “I tear up just thinking about it,” said Meyer about his homecomings over the years. Once, when returning from de-briefing, her father rode home on a bus with the other soldiers. She recalls how they waited for hours for that bus to pull up, and when he got off, his family tackled him in a loving embrace.

His arrivals always trigger the tear ducts. “You will try your hardest not to cry, but you can’t help it. It’s full of tears,” she said. For Meyer, just knowing that he’ll be home for a while longer now is “such a great feeling.”

At first, it’s tough getting back into the swing of things and “reconnecting to life” for Dustin Meyer. The time after returning from war is known as the reintegration phase. Eventually life at home returns to normal. For two and a half years, the ordinary routine returns. That is, until the whole process begins again and Meyer leaves for overseas service. Alex Meyer is prepared for many more of these separations, seeing as her father is not yet 40 years old and “has quite the military career ahead of him.”

Meyer’s boyfriend is in the Navy also. “Military has completely surrounded my life,” said Meyer.

So, does Meyer have any military aspirations of her own? “Just seeing how much my dad is gone, how much he misses out, I never really wanted to join the military,” said Meyer. But the assistance the military provides with schooling is appealing to Meyer, so she isn’t completely ruling it out.

“I’ve always kind of wanted to do the Air Force,” she said. “I’d love to jump out of airplanes. I just think the adrenaline rush would be so awesome.”

The academic help was a big incentive for Riches, who currently receives $4,500 a year by serving in the Army Reserve and completing basic training. Riches is thankful for all the help he can get, especially “when it goes hand-in-hand with one of my goals of being a soldier.” He plans on joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and exiting college as an officer.

Although Meyer is without any particular military desires of her own, she still has the utmost respect for those who do risk their lives to protect the American way of life. She’s proud of her dad and all those in the military and all that they do. “It’s a very selfless career; my dad knows that best of everyone.”