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Military dads: Staying connected with family near or far
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Nine-month-old Bo had been sitting calmly in the back seat for 15 minutes when the champagne-colored Chevy Tahoe he was riding in drove through the armed gates of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

He waited in his car seat as his mother climbed out to embrace the man on the curb wearing a camouflage uniform.

Suddenly the man opened the back door and slid in beside the car seat.

Bo looked at the man tentatively watching him, then at the laminated 8x10 picture of the same man hanging on the back of the front seat that he stared at every time he rode in the car. Then he looked back and smiled.

At his dad.

Bo was two weeks old when his father was deployed in September 2004, so by the time he returned home right before Father's Day the next year, fatherhood was something entirely new for both of them, said Rebekah Sanderlin, Bo's mother.

"That was an interesting Father's Day because my husband is a father but he doesn't really feel like a father because he didn't know his child yet," Sanderlin said.

Many families celebrate Father's Day with dad, mom and kids and other loved ones nearby. However, there are many families who don't always get the chance of celebrating in that seemingly traditional fashion, including military families, who have family members regularly away from home.

Military dads and their families may not always be physically together at a time like Father's Day, but each family has found unique ways to stay connected.

"I think we try to not focus on what's missing what I've been telling them the last couple of deployments (is that) their dad is one of the only people in the world who has the training to go and stop the bad guys, and that there are kids in other countries who need help," Sanderlin said. "It's really brave and generous of them to let those other kids use their dad they know he's gone for reasons, he's not gone for nothing."

The way of the military family

Sanderlin estimates her husband, a sergeant major whose name couldn't be disclosed for this story because of his military assignment, has been deployed at least 18 times since they've been married, and 27 times in his 20 total years in the Air Force.

"He's definitely been deployed much more than he's been home, his deployments far outweigh his home time," Sanderlin said.

Research shows the Sanderlins are not alone.

More than 900,000 children have experienced the deployment of one or both parents multiple times, according to a study done on the academic and mental impact of military deployment on children by the Grisolano Center for Neurodevelopment.

Other demographics gathered by Princeton University in 2013 on children in military families revealed that since 2001, more than 2 million American children have had a parent deployed at least once.

"Military families are a diverse population whose needs vary over time and across demographic groups," wrote the Grisolano study's authors. "No single story can encapsulate who military families are or what they need to flourish in military and civilian communities."

For Lt. Col. Gerald White, there have been plenty of missed holidays and birthdays, but staying connected throughout it all is a priority.

"I think in general most people are used to seeing men in history go off to war, but that doesn't make it any easier for the father who is leaving his son or daughter for the first time. Or even the fourth or fifth times, and missing out on those special occasions that they cannot be there for because their country calls them to serve," White said.

"It's helped bring my family closer together, recognizing that time we have together and how precious it is."

White has been deployed five times, three overseas and two stateside. There is a lot of sacrifice involved for families as they send off their fathers or mothers, and often it is more emotional and difficult for the family members back at home, White said.

Service members know what they are going out to do and are trained and ready. However, family members don't usually know exactly what is happening in a completely different and distant place in the world, and often only have the public news reports to inform them of big events or the things their father may be experiencing.

"I still think it's a lot harder sitting at home and wondering and not knowing," White said. "I think those who sacrifice the most are children and spouses who don't know day to day whether we're safe or whether we're not. Every father, every mother, every husband, every child who has waved good-bye to their service member is a hero."

Staying connected

When signing up as a soldier, these men know they'll be missing out on things, White said. Time with his family means everything, especially when he knows he'll miss something like Father's Day or a birthday.

For the Sanderlin family, their father is usually gone for at least one or two different holidays per deployment, meaning that celebrations usually take place before he leaves or after he returns. Over the years of having her husband deployed, Sanderlin has only seen technology as positive in allowing the family so much more chance to connect in everyday life.

But that hasn't stopped the family from doing everything possible to stay close and in contact. With the technology of today, there are numerous ways the Sanderlins, and many other military families, stay connected through it all.

"For holidays we'll try to FaceTime him, we try to remember him and get (a) care package early enough out to get to him in time the care packages are fun and we try to make him feel remembered and special," Sanderlin said. "There's no last-minute gifts for deployments, we have to plan months out."

However, because Sanderlin's children have never known any other way of life, celebrating holidays and special occasions without dad is not out of the ordinary. Luckily, neither is keeping in regular contact with dad.

"It's really typical for us to talk to him every day on the phone and FaceTime," Sanderlin said. "The kids have iPads and when they have Wi-Fi at home they can FaceTime him. We pretty much know his schedule when he's somewhere for a while, and they just call him. I'll just hear them talking to him in the other room and that's pretty cool."

And there are other ways to stay connected when the computer is off.

Leaving little notes around the house for children and family members to find is one way of connecting, shares Angela Lamson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and director of East Carolina University's Marriage and Family Therapy Program.

Especially if a parent preparing for deployment knows he won't be able to communicate much with his family, leaving things such as notes or photographs behind that represent or remind those back home of their father can be meaningful, said Lamson, who works with military couples.

"Some of the unique things that I have seen that have impressed me particularly during a deployment, are symbols (the father) has left for his children. It could be something that means something just to their family, or something that starts as a symbol," Lamson said. "It's like not having dad there, it's a way of seeking comfort when he's not there."

Some families will make and decorate treasure boxes together and put pictures of the father or things that represent him inside, and when children are missing their father or need comfort they can turn to that, she said.

"I just think fathers have an essential role in healthy child development, but I think that doesn't necessarily mean that they have to be in the house to do that," Lamson said.

Importance of fathers, near or far

Research shows that father-child contact is associated with better socio-emotional and academic functioning, according to a study at the University of Notre Dame on fathers' influence. Fathers can also dramatically affect long-term choices children may make, including those surrounding education, marriage and health, said Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathers.

"When you're talking military dads, traveling dads, divorced dads, when you get down to the bottom line, (the children) don't care what your salary is or anything, they want to identify with someone," Casey said.

Casey works and speaks regularly to families and fathers. NCF, which is located in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, inspires and equips dads to be engaged in their children's lives, Casey said.

There are three things fathers can do, no matter their situation, that will help them be "championship fathers," as Casey calls them: Be loving, coach their children and be a good model for them.

Loving children unconditionally, and loving their mother even when parents are apart can make all the difference. Sending personal texts or remembering even the simplest of events in a child's life, especially when far from home, makes a significant difference because the child knows they are loved, Casey said.

Taking advantage of opportunities to coach a child's team are great. But Casey said the concept of coaching goes beyond the field and into other aspects of life. He said that being aware of what his children are doing and involved in their lives shows how much a father cares.

"Children don't want to hear sermons," Casey said of being a model. "People in today's culture don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. That child has a greater chance for success they don't just survive, they fly."

"Every child needs a father, grandfather, some father-figure," he said.

Writing is the best way to stay connected and continue building deep relationships between father and children, Casey said. Even if a family isn't able to get letters very quickly, or if the father journals his experiences, children will feel that their father really does love them, even if they are thousands of miles away.

"A military dad, or any dad, still has so much to give to their child," Casey said. "Moms can really help that connection, they can speak to their children while dad is deployed to encourage the child of the greatness of the father they are in harm's way because they were chosen to do something very heroic and very great."