A Family Grows When Both Parents Deploy

The Doney family. Credit: Bruce Strong for NPR i i

Keith and Leisa Doney are deploying to Afghanistan, leaving their three children in the care of family friends. Bruce Strong for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bruce Strong for NPR
The Doney family. Credit: Bruce Strong for NPR

Keith and Leisa Doney are deploying to Afghanistan, leaving their three children in the care of family friends. From left: Daughter Kirsten Valentine, 17, father Keith Doney, family friend Clarence Dowd, mother Leisa Doney, son Kyle Doney, 3, family friend Joni Browne, and son Trent Doney, 17.

Bruce Strong for NPR
Keith and Leisa Doney. Credit: Bruce Strong for NPR i i
Bruce Strong for NPR
Keith and Leisa Doney. Credit: Bruce Strong for NPR
Bruce Strong for NPR
The Doney children and family friend Joni Browne. Credit: Bruce Strong for NPR i i
Bruce Strong for NPR
The Doney children and family friend Joni Browne. Credit: Bruce Strong for NPR

"I kinda spoke up and said I'd be willing to stay here and help out, because we all know each other and we're actually like family," says family friend Joni Browne (center).

Bruce Strong for NPR

The Impact Of War

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From North Country Public Radio

Help For Families Of Deployment

Life can be tough for any family when one parent deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan. But what happens when both Mom and Dad go to war at the same time?

Keith and Leisa Doney are no strangers to military life overseas. They have 40 years in the Army between them. The couple has deployed together to Korea and Bosnia. Keith also has been to Somalia, Egypt and Afghanistan.

"I guess you never really get used to it. But the more you do it, the easier it gets," Keith says.

The couple's teenagers, Trent and Kirsten, are stepsiblings. They're both high school seniors and are accustomed to staying with their grandparents during deployments. Three-year-old Kyle is the baby of the family. He was born in Korea.

In a matter of days, Keith and Leisa Doney both are going to Afghanistan with the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. This time, the three kids are not going to their grandparents.

A Creative Solution

Joni Browne is a neighbor who moved in with the Doneys last year after fleeing a bad domestic situation. When the Doneys got their deployment orders for Afghanistan, Joni offered to stay on as nanny.

"I kinda spoke up and said I'd be willing to stay here and help out, because we all know each other and we're actually like family," she says.

This extended family includes another adult — a friend named Clarence who is going to keep an eye on the two teenagers.

"Big, giant guy — that's what we like to call him," Trent says. "He's a friend of my dad and Leisa."

Trent says his parents know Clarence through the military. He's gentle, Trent says, but you don't want to cross him.

Keith says the whole arrangement works because it preserves the family's routine.

"Now the kids that are seniors in school can finish their classes," he says. "They can graduate with their friends. And Kyle here has a routine where he can go to day care every morning. And that keeps it a lot better because we don't have to worry. Because when we're downrange and we have a mission down there, you can't be thinking about what's going on back here, because over there, lives are stake."

An estimated 2 million children in this country have had at least one parent deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Leisa says that when it comes to dual-military or single parents, creative solutions like theirs can work when they're done right.

"Gotta make sure everything is set up first before we go," she says. "Make sure everything is taken care of."

That includes transferring guardianship and powers of attorney, setting up bank accounts, drawing up wills and getting life insurance. They're also notifying day care, doctors, dentists and teachers.

Helping Kids Cope

Kyle, the 3-year-old, hops up into his mother's arms. Leisa says the deployment will probably be hardest on him.

"I don't think he understands why we're going, but he knows we're going to leave. He wants to go on the plane with us. They could tell at the day care." Leisa says talk of her and Keith leaving may be leading Kyle to act out. "He got in trouble for biting."

New research suggests that the pain of deployment separation can cause behavior problems or anxiety in preschool-age children. Older kids struggle, too.

"They may start to party," says Terry Freeman, a guidance counselor at a local high school where a quarter of the students come from military families. "They may start to find escape routes for things. They may start to miss school, because if they had to get up and snow-blow the driveway for their mom to get to work, they're tired and out of sync. Or their grades may start to slip."

The military has developed an array of resources to help families through deployments. Every unit has a family-readiness team. There are piles of guides and pamphlets, and a summer camp for military kids. Sesame Street even has videos in English and Spanish about talking to children about war.

The Doneys have their own form of therapy downstairs in the basement.

It's any kid's dream come true: a game room with ice hockey, foosball, a slot machine, dartboard and even a state-of-the-art in-home theater. Keith says it's all part of the plan.

"Now, I got 15 days left before I get on a plane, so every night we got the routine of get home, do the dinner, give Kyle his bath, and then we come down, watch a movie. It just maximizes the family time," he says. "Have a good time while we can."

Deployment Draws Near

As time passes, emotions are building. The Doneys have put a huge amount of trust in Joni, the nanny. She tears up at the thought of them leaving.

"It's getting close to that time, and it's going to be a big responsibility for myself," she says. "I'm taking over, which I'm willing to take over."

Trent consoles her. He says everyone is going to step up as a team.

"If Joni had to do something and nobody was there to watch Kyle, like if I had a track meet or something, I would have to cancel that track meet to help take care of my brother," Trent explains. "My brother and the house are the No. 1 priority once [my parents] are gone."

Trent is giving up much of the typical senior year of friends and freedom to support his parents, but he says that's OK by him.

"Yeah, I'm cool with that. They sacrificed a lot for me. [I'm] pretty much returning the favor."

The Doneys will take leave from their jobs in Afghanistan next June to see Trent and his sister graduate. And when they come home for good, they'll accompany Trent to the recruitment office. He wants to join the Army, too.

David Sommerstein reports for North Country Public Radio.

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