Sergeant Candice Dawkins volunteered to chaperone her son’s third grade field trip less than a month after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq last year. Walking around the local zoo, loud noises in the distance make her feel anxious and nervous. Accustomed to listening to bombs as her daily soundtrack, the noises of children and animals were jarring.
Dawkins quickly realized she had a long path to adjustment back to life stateside. She needed time — and support from her family.
Sergeant Dawkins, 32, began serving the country when she was 17 years old. She joined the reserve and then transferred into the National Guard. As a squad leader at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, she now provides emotional and physical support to wounded warriors who come home from war.
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In 2009, she was deployed to Iraq as a soldier in the National Guard for a year, leaving her now 9-year-old son CaRon at home with her parents, since his father was not around.
Living away from her family was tough. While technology has made it easier for Dawkins and other soldiers to communicate with their families via skype and cell phones, sometimes checking in could be more painful than pleasurable.
“It’s hard to call everyday, or hear your child’s voice and they may be going through something and I can’t help them,” said Dawkins. “You try being a two places at one time, and you can’t really do that.”
And while communication is one challenge, leaving home can be much more difficult.
“Leaving my son behind was definitely the most challenging thing,” said Dawkins. “And when we return home, a lot of parents try to jump back into being a parent; you think you can go back to what you were doing before. You have to gradually take baby steps, and I didn’t.”
Not taking baby steps to transition back into life at home was difficult for Dawkins. The anxiety she felt chaperoning CaRon’s field trip within her first month home showed Dawkins how important having a support team is. She called her father who served in the Vietnam war and could understand her trouble adjusting.
But every soldier does not have family to rely on like Dawkins does. For first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, more support for America’s military families is something they are pushing for as they kick off a military families initiative today. Biden and Obama will travel to North Carolina, Colorado, Texas and elsewhere to educate Americans about how they can help service members like Dawkins.
“One percent of Americans may be fighting our wars; 100 percent of Americans need to be supporting our troops and their families — 100 percent,” said President Barack Obama in January 2011-.
“It is very important to have backing, to know there is someone in your corner,” said Dawkins. “A friend, parents, someone you know that has your best interests.”
Being a single mom is another hurdle Dawkins faces. She isn’t excused from duty because there is no spouse to watch CaRon when it is time for her to leave. Her parents and other family members have stepped up to watch and raise CaRon when she has to work.
But support for soldiers lies outside of family members. Neighbors, community leaders, and local store owners can also assist military families.
Members of military families often show their resilience when loved ones are deployed for long periods of time, leaving behind their spouses and children.
“The displacement of taking the father or mother out of the family and into the combat zone, they are dealing with repeatedly, it disturbs the dynamic of the family,” said Stephen Peck, President and CEO of U.S. VETS.
Sergeant First Class Tamara Rubin, 40, has uprooted her family a few times because of her job.
Rubin graduated from the University of Toledo with a business management degree. Soon after, she joined the National Guard in 1996. Her now ex-husband was in the Air Force, and after they divorced she became active. In 2005, she was deployed to Kuwait, and as a single mom, her son Joshua went to live with her aunt in Indiana.
“I don’t think civilians know how much their words mean, because they don’t get how much you sacrifice,” said Rubin. “Your time, your family, its my mom and my dad. Its your whole family signing up.”
Living a stable life in Fort Bragg, North Carolina when she returned home in 2006, just recently Rubin was ordered to leave her comfortable military neighborhood that played a crucial role in Joshua’s development, and move to Washington, DC to work at Walter Reed.
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“It doesn’t matter what time of the year it is, the military can move you,” said Rubin. “So we moved in the middle of my son’s school year.”
And moving wasn’t easy for 13-year-old Joshua. He had to make new friends, navigate peer pressure, and be the man of the house. Joshua also has a learning disability which created a different set of hurdles in the classroom. He was placed in a class he never took in North Carolina, resulting in failing grades for the rest of his semester.
Both Rubin and Dawkins love what they do, and say it is an honor to serve the United States. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military families bear a heavy burden.
“The veteran population is changing. It is more female, more young, and they have different kinds of needs,” said Peck. “Young families are being disrupted by being called back two, three or four times…helping them really comes down to communities getting together and becoming educated about what these young families are going through.”
Planning ahead for military families can be tireless, sometimes never knowing when they could get deployed again.
“I am preparing now for later,” said Sergeant Dawkins. “I am preparing mentally and physically. I am talking to my son about how I may have to leave. I tell him, I know its rough sometimes, not being selfish and letting your mom go, but when I’m here, I’m here full force.”
Unsure of when she could be deployed again, Dawkins enjoys every second with CaRon — playing baseball and football with him, and continuing to volunteer in his school.