It’s difficult enough to be away from family at any point during the year, especially during a holiday or special occasion.
For military families, though, the distance is felt immeasurably more, when a spouse and parent is separated from family by thousands of miles in an unsafe zone during times of war.
Some troops get to come home for a much-needed reprieve. Some families can never bridge that gulf once tragedy strikes.
This is the story of one local military family, and a chronicle of their reunion.
Cristina Navarro is a Yakima mom of three children, whose husband, Lee Navarro, is an Army soldier. Lee was deployed to Iraq from August 2008 to August 2009, and with extra time spent in training, he was away from the family for a total of 15 months.
On Aug. 14, 2008, when Cristina was pregnant with twins — and just two days before Lee left the U.S. — the couple married. The wedding was during Cristina’s 30-minute lunch break from a local retail store where she was working at the time.
“That’s something I’m going to love to tell the kids,” she says.
The twins, Sophia and Robert, were born in October that same year.
Part of Lee’s time away was during the Christmas season, so Cristina, 21, began a daily winter tradition. She created paper chain links to put on the tree for their kids, including their nephew Shadow, who the couple helped raise. This paper chain link served as a countdown for the family to see how many days remained before Lee came home to visit. Each night they would rip off a link.
“I remember how hard it was for my husband when he was away, and that helped him, too,” says Cristina. “I was lucky to have contact with my husband often.” The couple could typically communicate four days a week on the telephone or via Skype or email.
“It was hard but made him realize how close he was to being home even if it would only be for two weeks,” Cristina says.
She and the kids also kept busy creating care packages for Lee and his friends, always theme-based and even custom made. One gift was a Christmas tree that boosted the soldiers’ morale. “They told me the smell took them home,” says Cristina. The packages to Lee always included photos, notes and treats, all of which the kids helped decorate.
When the twins were born, Lee couldn’t make it home to be there. Cristina couldn’t even get the message out to him in time, before she went into delivery suddenly at 37 weeks. But Lee was able to call her the next day.
“When he heard them crying, he started crying,” Cristina says. That call was interrupted by sudden motor attacks where he was stationed, and he couldn’t contact her again for another week.
Eventually he was able to come home, if only for a while.
“He held the babies so carefully,” Cristina says. “My husband’s a big fellow and they were still small.”
Christina’s last pregnancy was unexpected, and the couple found out the news the day before Lee had to return to Iraq to serve for another seven months in 2009. Cristina remembers Lee not wanting to leave, knowing he was looking forward to helping out, and had already been getting practice changing diapers and making bottles.
“I remember the night before he left, I helped him pack and I was folding his socks,” Cristina says. “I was crying, rubbing my belly and trying my hardest to tackle those socks. I didn’t realize until I was on my last pair that Lee was taking them out of his rucksack and refolding them. I remember being a bit hysterical, saying that I couldn’t even fold the socks the right way. What kind of Army wife was I going to be?”
When Lee, now 25, finally came home for good, Cristina was seven months’ pregnant with daughter Mia, and Sophia and Robert were not yet a year old.
“He was able to see what he missed before. I know it was bittersweet for him,” says Cristina. “I went through everything alone and it was hard on him.”
Lee was there for Mia’s birth, who was born the month after he returned. So far, Lee has only been deployed once, but remains “on call,” as Cristina calls it, which means he could get sent out at any point.
“I can say without a doubt that if or when he leaves again I will be prepared,” says Cristina. Although Shadow no longer lives with them, they have their hands full with the twins and Mia, now 4 and 3 respectively.
The kids are now old enough to ask what Lee does in the Army — which they pronounce “awe-mee,” — and if “he’ll be home in five minutes, or if he will take them to a park when he comes home,” says Cristina.
“They love telling me we are Army strong, and we are.”
Despite the separation and the “firsts” the family missed out on together, Cristina says she would do it all over again if she had the chance.
“I am proud of my husband and proud of all the past, present and fallen troops,” she says. “The loved ones left behind serve, too, when their loved ones go. It’s tough and not everyone survives, but my husband doesn’t fight because he hates what’s in front of him, but because he loves what’s behind him.”