A Family Grows When Both Parents Deploy 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? The Doney family found a creative solution.
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A Family Grows When Both Parents Deploy

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A Family Grows When Both Parents Deploy

A Family Grows When Both Parents Deploy

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From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen.

Today, our Impact of War series concludes. For the past month, we have been reporting on the challenges faced by U.S. military personnel and their families as the soldiers return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These stories were not just about loss and disruption, they were also about reclaiming lives.

We visited a burn center in San Antonio, Texas, where both victims and medical personnel are finding ways to heal. We went to a small town in Pennsylvania, where an Air Force K9 handler who was severely wounded in Iraq married the medic who saved her life, and adopted her bomb-sniffing dog. In a few moments, a conversation about the job market for returning veterans. But first, life can be tough for any family when one parent deploys to a war zone. Imagine what it's like when both mom and dad go off to war at the same time. Generally, the children stay with grandparents or other relatives. But some families have had to be creative. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports on one family based at Fort Drum in upstate New York.

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

Mr. KEITH DONEY (Soldier): I guess you never really get used to it. But the more you do it, I guess, the easier it gets.

SOMMERSTEIN: The couple's teenagers, Trent and Kirsten, are stepbrother and sister. They're high school seniors, and they're accustomed to staying with their grandparents during deployments.

(Soundbite of child screaming)

SOMMERSTEIN: That's three-year-old Kyle, the baby of the family. He was born in Korea. In a matter of days, Keith and Leisa Doney are both going to Afghanistan, with the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. This time, the three kids are not going to their grandparents.

Ms. JONI BROWN: My name is Joni Brown. I'm friends with Keith and Leisa.

SOMMERSTEIN: Joni was a neighbor. She 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.

Ms. BROWN: I kind of spoke up and said that I'd be willing to stay here and help out, because we all know each other, and actually, we're like family.

SOMMERSTEIN: This extended family includes another adult, a retired German soldier named Clarence, who's going to keep an eye on the two teenagers.

Mr. TRENT DONEY: Big, giant guy, that's what we like to call him. Like, he's a friend of my dad and Leisa.

SOMMERSTEIN: Trent says his parents know Clarence through the military. He's gentle, Trent says, but you don't want to cross him. Keith Doney, the father, says the whole arrangement works, because it preserves the family's routine.

Mr. DONEY: Now the kids that are seniors in school can stay in their classes. They can graduate with their friends. And then Kyle, he has a routine where he goes to daycare every morning. And that keeps it a lot better, because then 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 at stake.

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

Ms. LEISA DONEY (Soldier): Got to get a lot of things set up first before we go, and make sure everything is taken care of.

SOMMERSTEIN: Leisa says they have to transfer guardianship, powers of attorney, bank accounts. They have to draw up wills, get life insurance, they're notifying daycare, doctors, dentists, teachers. The 3-year-old hops up into his mother's arms. Leisa says the deployment will probably be hardest on him.

Ms. DONEY: I don't think he understands why we're going, but he knows that we're going to leave. He wants to go on the plane with us. They could tell at the daycare that we were talking to him about us leaving because he was acting out, got in trouble for biting.

SOMMERSTEIN: New research suggests the pain of deployment separation can cause behavior problems or anxiety in preschoolers. Older children struggle, too. Terry Freeman, a guidance counselor at a local high school where a quarter of the students come from military families.

Mr. TERRY FREEMAN (Guidance Counselor): They may start to party. They might start to find escape routes for things. They may start to miss school because, you know, if they had to get up and snow-blow the driveway for their mom to get to work, you know, they're tired and out of sync, or their grades may start to slip.

SOMMERSTEIN: 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.

(Soundbite of child playing)

SOMMERSTEIN: It's any kid's dream-come-true, a game room with ice hockey, foosball, a slot machine, dartboard and...

(Soundbite of home theater system playing)

SOMMERSTEIN: ...a state-of-the-art, in-home theater. Keith says it's all part of the plan.

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

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

Ms. BROWN: It's getting close to that time, and it's going to be a lot of big responsibility for myself, you know, taking over. Which I'm willing to take over.

SOMMERSTEIN: Trent consoles her. He says he, his sister and the German guy are going to step up as a team.

Mr. TRENT DONEY: If like Joni had to do something and nobody was there to watch Kyle, if I had a track meeting or something, I would have to just cancel that track meet to help take care of my brother. Like, my brother and the house are the number one priority once they're gone.

SOMMERSTEIN: Trent is giving up much of the typical senior year of friends and freedom to support his parents.

Mr. TRENT DONEY: Yeah, I'm cool with that. I mean, they sacrificed a lot for me. I'm pretty much returning the favor.

SOMMERSTEIN: 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. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.

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