SCOTT SIMON, host:
We're going to go now to our story from Texas Public Radio reporter Terry Gildea.
(Soundbite of child squealing)
TERRY GILDEA: It's Saturday morning at the Griffitts household in San Antonio. In the kitchen, the excitement mixed with the smell of pancakes fill the air. Six-year-old Isabella, four-year-old Caleb and 15-month-old Jackson gather around a laptop while their mom, Jennifer, waits for their dad to connect via Skype.
Ms. JENNIFER GRIFFITTS: I'm going to put you on with the kids.
Mr. CALEB GRIFFITTS: Hi, daddy.
Mr. ANDREW GRIFFITTS: Hi. What are you eating?
Mr. C. GRIFFITTS: Pancakes.
Mr. A. GRIFFITTS: Are you going to save me some pancakes?
GILDEA: Jennifer urges the kids to fill dad in.
Ms. GRIFFITTS: Why don't you tell daddy about your report card.
Ms. ISABELLA GRIFFITTS: I got lots of Bs but one F in music.
Mr. A. GRIFFITTS: Good job, monkey.
GILDEA: Andrew Griffitts, a chief petty officer in the Navy, is in the middle of a long deployment in Afghanistan. These once-a-week conversations are precious. His wife, Jennifer, tries to manage the household and take care of the three kids. Add to that, four-year-old Caleb has special needs. Jennifer spends much of her week shuttling him to therapists and doctors to help him overcome his physical and mental challenges resulting from several birth defects.
Ms. J. GRIFFITTS: The Torticollis, which is he can only move his neck so far. And it's like a tightening of the neck muscles. He's got plagiocephaly, which is the flattening of the head.
GILDEA: Complications associated with Caleb's torticollis and plagiocephaly have left him with the mental and emotional development of a nine-month-old.
Ms. J. GRIFFITTS: He can't walk, he can't crawl, he can't sit up on his own. He sits in a wheelchair most of the time. If he's here at home he'll sit in, like, a little toddler chair just so that he's comfortable, or we get him to roll around on the floor and we do some exercises with him.
GILDEA: Jennifer was laid off from her job as a corporate media buyer shortly after Andrew's deployment. She missed a lot of work trying to manage the three kids on her own and her boss wasn't very flexible or understanding. But despite the loss of income, Jennifer says she's coping.
Ms. J. GRIFFITTS: Before I got laid off, I felt like I was being pulled in all different directions and I wasn't giving my all to any of them. So, I believe getting laid off was a blessing in disguise.
GILDEA: But the daily grind of trying to manage everything alone is taking its toll. Andrew's parents live about 10 miles away, but they aren't able to help out as much as they would like. Witnessing the emotional toll her husband's deployment is having on her kids is the most difficult.
Ms. J. GRIFFITTS: Every day my daughter tells me how much she misses her daddy. When she heard about her friend CJ's dad coming home from his deployment, she said, does that mean my daddy's coming home soon? And I said, no, honey, not for a couple more months.
GILDEA: Jennifer tries to remain positive, but admits that's an uphill battle.
Ms. J. GRIFFITTS: I have to take one day at a time, because it is hard. I'm also one of those stubborn people that doesn't like to ask for help.
GILDEA: The Griffitts get some help through the Navy's Exceptional Family Member Program. Caleb's physical health care is provided through the program at an Air Force hospital in San Antonio because it's close to where they live. But Jennifer says that military program doesn't provide a lot of emotional support.
Ms. J. GRIFFITTS: You would think that the military would look at each family individually, but they don't.
GILDEA: Kelly Hruska is with the National Military Family Association in Washington. She concedes that each branch of the service runs their Exceptional Family Member programs differently, but a bill recently passed by Congress will create a single Defense Department office dedicated to helping military families like the Griffitts.
Ms. KELLY HRUSKA (National Military Family Association): The Army and the Marine Corps have a very well-developed Exceptional Family Member Program, whereas the Navy and the Air Force are working to better establish their programs. Our association does believe that this office is going to help integrate those services a little better.
GILDEA: Back in San Antonio, Jennifer looks forward to the excitement generated every weekend when the kids get to talk to their dad over the Internet. It's especially important for Caleb.
Ms. J. GRIFFITTS: Every time he hears Andrew's voice on messenger or Skype or just on the phone, his face just lights up and he gets a smile and he starts kicking his legs and he just makes all these noises. And it's so cute to see.
GILDEA: Andrew's deployment is scheduled to end in December. Jennifer hopes next year they can all be together as a family instead of huddled around a laptop computer.
For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea in San Antonio.