Courtesy the Halander family
Zack Halander watches his father leave for his second deployment. While his father was gone, Zack developed severe separation anxiety that was compounded by a speech delay.
Zack Halander watches his father leave for his second deployment. While his father was gone, Zack developed severe separation anxiety that was compounded by a speech delay. Courtesy the Halander family
Kristie Halander isn't the kind of person you would expect to challenge orders from the Army. She's very proud of her husband's 18 years of military service. Stars and stripes decorate nearly every room in the home the couple shares with their two children near Fort Lewis, Wash.
But when the orders came down for Army Sgt. Ken Halander to transfer to a small training base in Fort Polk, La., the couple fought it — even though the move would have guaranteed that Ken Halander wouldn't be deployed for a third time.
Repeated deployments of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan are taking an increasing toll on military families, especially those with young children. But for the Halanders, it came down to a difficult choice between another long deployment to Iraq or access to the medical care they desperately need for their children.
"I was OK with moving. I liked the fact that my husband would not be deployed and he might be around for our children," Kristie Halander says. "But when I called down to Louisiana and started inquiring ... they did not have any pediatric specialists; we were several hours from a children's hospital; there were no speech therapists for my son, no developmental preschools, no pediatric pulmonologists."
The Halanders' children, Zackary, 4, and Samantha, 2, both developed serious emotional and physical issues during their father's last deployment.
Samantha has RSV — a respiratory virus that has severely weakened her immune system. Kristie had to quit her job to handle the constant care. At the same time, Zack developed severe separation anxiety that was compounded by a speech delay.
Kristie Halander says moving to Fort Polk would have meant losing the care she has cobbled together for them.
Courtesy Halander family
The Halander family: Samantha, Ken, Kristie and Zack.
The Halander family: Samantha, Ken, Kristie and Zack. Courtesy Halander family
After five months of worry, meetings and paperwork, they got their wish: The family could stay put. But then Kristie had to part with her husband again.
"It was much harder to say goodbye this time," she says. "I thought it would get easier by the third time around. And I think this was the hardest goodbye we've had."
As hard as it is to be without her husband, Kristie says they couldn't relocate the children.
Before Zack got treatment, Kristie says, he wouldn't do anything without her. Their bedtime routine often stretched to three hours or more. And some nights, he wouldn't sleep at all.
"He would just lay in bed and tell me, 'I'm not going to close my eyes because you'll leave me, Mom,' " she says. "Then he was struggling in school because he was falling asleep, and he would just lay awake, midnight, 1 o' clock in the morning, and just lay there and not close his eyes."
Kristie says when she first sought treatment, she was told by the military that her son was too young for mental health coverage. So she found a licensed mental health provider through the Soldiers Project, a nonprofit that helps military families.
Wendy Rawlings, the family's counselor, says when she met Zack, he was stuck in a fantasy world, constantly pretending to be a soldier like Daddy.
"I think Zack felt closer to his dad by being allowed to pretend a lot," Rawlings says. "We want kids to pretend; we want them to be able to imagine. But he spent a lot more time in the imaginary world."
Courtesy the Halander family
Zack Halander hugs his stuffed "Daddy doll."
Zack Halander hugs his stuffed "Daddy doll." Courtesy the Halander family
The therapy has helped Zack communicate better and deal with his emotions.
Rawlings supported the family's decision to challenge their orders to Fort Polk — because even for military families who are used to moving, it's very stressful.
"With a kid like Zackary, that would have been really hard. He needed the familiar — the safety and the predictability of places that he already knew," Rawlings says.
Kristie says the help from the Soldiers Project is invaluable. She has also amassed a virtual army of volunteers at her church whom she can call for help anytime. But it still doesn't cure the stress and loneliness she experiences during her husband's deployments.
She has filled their home with special reminders of him.
"My teddy bear ... has my husband's voice on it, so that at night when I need to hear him say goodnight ... " — she pushes a button on the bear's back, and her husband's recorded voice flows into the room: "Hi, Sweetheart. I love you very much and I miss you. Hope your day is going well, and always remember that I love you and the kids."
Kristie says her husband has additional voice recorders in Iraq. "He sends them to us and then we send him these back so he can record a new message," she says.
Along with the teddy bears, the family has stuffed "Daddy dolls," "Daddy books" they read at night with pictures of him, "Daddy videos" with him reading bedtime stories and Zack's current favorite — "Flat Daddy," a life-sized cardboard cutout of Ken Halander in camouflage.
"I look at him every night before I go to bed," Zack says. "I take him everywhere I go — not to school, but in the car and stuff, so I always remember."
Zack still shows signs of anxiety, but Kristie says he's improving.
In an interview before he left two months ago, Sgt. Halander said choosing deployment again over the move to Louisiana was a tough trade-off. But he finds comfort in knowing that Kristie has the support she needs.
"I'll have that peace of mind while I'm over there, knowing that if she does go through this, well, the program is already in place to get the help that they'll need," he says.
Sgt. Halander calls the family several times a week and even talks with them on a Web cam. Kristie and the children are counting down the days till he comes home next month on R&R.