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When a member of the military gets deployment orders one of the most challenging tasks can be finding someone to care for the children. In many cases it falls to the parent or grandparents left behind. But in some cases no family members are available. Sheena Sullen, a Navy operations specialist, struggled with this decision last fall as she prepared to leave her Virginia home for an overseas assignment. Sullen called on a childhood friend in another state to come care for her two children. Reporter Mara Zepeda has their story.
Ms. JIHAN SANDERS: My name is Jihan Sanders. My best friend Sheena Sullen is deployed. She left November the 7th. And I came here from Alabama to help her take care of her kids while she's away.
MARA ZEPEDA: On a Sunday, Jihan Sanders steals a few moments of peace while her two children play outside with Sullen's son and daughter. It's the quiet time after church and before she starts cooking dinner.
Sullen and Sanders were just 16, not much older than their children, when they first met in high school.
Ms. SANDERS: We both had French class in Montgomery, Alabama. She sat in front of me. I was quiet, because I was new. She turned around, all pleasant and happy. And I just looked at her like, hey. And she was like, hi, my name is Sheena. Our friendship just blossomed from there. And we were just inseparable.
ZEPEDA: Sanders was raised by her strict military father, who she says never allowed company. She spent all of her free time at Sullen's house.
Ms. SANDERS: Her house was the more homey house. It was, Oh, hey baby, hey sugar. How you doing today? It was just always life at her house, and I loved it over there.
ZEPEDA: The best friends would sleep head to toe in Sullen's twin bed, dreaming about the future. They planned to enlist in the Navy on the buddy system. And live in one big house, with their husbands and kids. But things didn't turn out as planned. Sullen enlisted after having her son, and Sanders was left behind.
Ms. SANDERS: I end up getting pregnant, so she just went on to the military by herself. I felt like it was the best thing that she ever did. Like, she had to do that in order to take care of her child, to actually be a real mother.
ZEPEDA: When Sullen got the news of her deployment early last year, she called her best friend and without apology asked her to quit her job in Alabama and start a new life in Norfolk, Virginia.
Ms. SANDERS: I had some troubles going on in my life. So I prayed on the situation. And I asked God, you know, was this what you needed me to do? Sheena has always been there for me. I couldn't turn my back on her in her time of need.
ZEPEDA: Last November, the blended family watched Sullen board the USS Mahan missile destroyer. Sanders and Sullen's girls took it the hardest.
Ms. SANDERS: The day that Sheena left, we all got up very early, and it was freezing. We all tried to act like she wasn't leaving. But as we got topsided, me, Zaria and Tashawn started to cry, which made Sheena cry. It was just sad. It was sad, but I knew she had to do it. It's her job. And she loves her job.
ZEPEDA: For Sanders, it is a privilege to be a temporary mother, as Sullen had been to her.
Ms. SANDERS: I never had a mother, so I didn't know what it was like, even how to act like a girl. I was a tomboy. She showed me how girls are supposed to dress. She listened to me. With her, I knew I would be safe and I would go the places that I was supposed to go.
ZEPEDA: Sanders has been dieting and getting in shape for boot camp, hoping to finally enlist herself. They're all counting down the days until Sullen is scheduled to return this summer.
For NPR News, I'm Mara Zepeda.
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