08/26/07 — Being there for families while airmen overseas

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Being there for families while airmen overseas

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 26, 2007 2:08 AM

Cindy Hartsfield has been there.

She, too, was once a single parent.

"It was hard -- especially with a 6-month-old," she said. "He wasn't sleeping through the night, even though you would expect him to."

But her dual-role as mother and father had nothing to do with death or divorce.

It was the result of war -- of Sept. 11, 2001 -- and her husband's deployment.

"There were a couple of times when I was just in tears with him over the phone," the Air Force technical sergeant said. "I said, 'Come on. I'm a big girl. I should be able to take care of myself.' But the stress of picking up everything -- being mom and dad -- taking care of the house and everything, there is no time."

Her son, Joshua, was too young to long for his father.

But other women, she added, are not so lucky.

So when the 4th Fighter Wing troop was assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's Airman and Family Readiness Center shortly after her husband's return, she knew drawing on her own experiences could help others cope.

Some come for the company and the chats.

Others just need a break from the daily grind.

But all of the women who attend the monthly Hearts Apart Pot Luck on base have one thing in common -- Mrs. Hartsfield's shoulder to cry on.

The support group for spouses of the deployed has been around longer than the airman.

Still, women like Anna Ellis say there is something special about Hartsfield.

"You really could not ask for anyone better," Ms. Ellis said.

Like many others who attend the dinners, her husband, Lt. Kevin Riddel, is in the middle of a six-month tour.

"It really is a roller coaster," Ms. Ellis said. "You're still trying to play both parents so the emotions range every day."

Hearts Apart offers an escape from the day-to-day, she added -- if only for a few hours at a time.

"We just kind of hang out and chat," Ms. Ellis said. "It really is nice."

Her 11-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son enjoy those nights, too.

While their mother is busy sharing smiles and tears with the others, they, too, have company -- other children of the deployed and a half-dozen volunteers.

"The parents get a break and the kids have their own activities," Mrs. Hartsfield said. "It's good for all of them."

But putting on the event is not always easy -- nor is the role of comforter.

With every piece of advice she offers, Mrs. Hartsfield must relive her own journey.

A call about an overgrown lawn takes her back.

"It was horrible. It really was," she said. "(My husband) said he had everything taken care of. A couple of guys from his shop were supposed to come cut the grass for us. But then the lawnmower wouldn't work."

And those are the "minor" problems.

The hardest part is watching the children in the group grow older -- knowing their fathers are missing milestones each day.

"Seeing the infants born while their dad is gone, getting to see them before he does, it's hard," Mrs. Hartsfield said. "Sometimes, these guys are gone for six months. When you leave, you have this infant who really isn't doing much of anything, and you come back to a toddler who can run up to you."

She tries to keep the fathers involved -- taking pictures at the monthly dinners and e-mailing them.

"Hopefully, it helps their time move a little more quickly," she said.

But she knows there is no replacing the embrace shared by father and child.

"It's sad but we all signed up for the same reason -- to defend the Constitution and help make life better for others," she said. "Eventually, they will get to see 'Daddy.'"

And Mrs. Hartsfield knows that until they do, the children -- and their mothers -- will always have plenty of friends to fall back on at Seymour Johnson.

"To me, this is the best job in the Air Force," she said about working with families of the deployed and remote. "Even if I only touch one family or one spouse, I know I have made a difference. I see it."

But like "all good things," Mrs. Hartsfield knows her assignment will not last forever.

Having been in the post for more than three years, she predicts her replacement will be named by the end of the year.

Ms. Ellis isn't sure who that might be.

But she said she does know one thing for certain -- there will never be another like "Cindy."

"If I really, really need someone, I just pick up the phone and call her. It's comforting," she said. "Things will go up and down, but I know if I hit a bump, she is there."