While he's at war, family carries on with business of life
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 11, 2007 2:02 AM
It was not the fact that he missed 6-year-old Lyndsay's first day of grade school. It was a little girl without her daddy's hand to hold at the bus stop.
It was not the fact that he was at war.
It was the spot on his side of the bed that stayed empty for more than 100 days.
For the Iseminger family, the past five months have not been about particular milestones missed.
Each day has simply been incomplete.
So don't talk about the night 4-year-old Zachary refused to take a phone call from the desert.
Don't remind Suzanne about the funeral plans her "rock" and "best friend" left her.
None of those things seem to matter now that Nathan is home.
A father kicks a soccer ball with his son and daughter for the first time in nearly half a year.
They smile and play as if he never left.
But the scene was much different the day he deployed.
The sun was shining on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, but there was little glow inside a particular SUV parked along the curb outside the 4th Fighter Wing's Operations Building.
Nathan was going away.
Whether his children ever fully understood what that meant was a different story.
"Zachary loves his 'Star Wars' and he does understand the difference between good guys and bad guys," Nathan said. "So I told him that I had to go to Iraq and help keep other good guys safe from the bad guys."
Lyndsay "probably understood."
She showed it that day at Seymour Johnson, Nathan said.
Standing on the tailgate of his truck, her expression was hidden to all but the ground.
No long embrace.
No gazing into her daddy's eyes.
No "I love you" -- not even when Nathan held the back of her head and ran his fingertips through her long, brown hair.
"Lyndsay locked up like she often does when it's time to say goodbye," Nathan said. "She just stood there on the tailgate and let me hug her, but she wouldn't hug or kiss me and she wouldn't say a word. Needless to say, that was not the goodbye I wanted."
Zachary wore enough emotion for both of them.
Donning Nathan's cap and a "U.S.A." T-shirt, his cries could be heard across the street and through the parking lot.
"Daddy," he screamed over and over, tears running down his face all the while.
Nathan said he did his best to hold it together, to be strong for the wife and children he was leaving behind.
But just then, his son did something that still brings tears to the airman's eyes.
"Suddenly, it seemed like he reached an understanding of the situation," he said. "He stopped crying, took off the hat and put it on my head -- as if to send me off."
Nathan could no longer hold back his tears.
Maybe he was anticipating the next -- and hardest -- goodbye to come.
Suzanne revealed half a smile when, with eyes closed, her husband came in for a long hug and one more kiss.
"Parting with Suzanne was tough because she fears this deployment," Nathan said. "I've tried to reassure her that I am not going to a hot spot, but she is having a hard time staying optimistic. I think the last thing she said to me was to be careful because she couldn't lose me."
And then, he was gone -- off to get his gun, off to catch a ride to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, off to a base in Southwest Asia.
"When he left it was weird. The day had finally come," Suzanne said. "I couldn't believe he was leaving. (On) the ride home, Zachary was crying, Lyndsay was silent. They both had their own ways of dealing with it. I was careful not to cry because I knew they were looking for my reaction."
She had let the moments before her husband's deployment remain about a father and his children connecting one last time -- waiting to break down until she was behind closed doors, waiting to come to terms with her husband's deployment when no one was watching.
That night, a sad Wayne County household had thoughts, only, of the person missing -- the one on his way across the world.
"When you fly against the movement of the sun, it seems like morning comes almost right after sunset, so it's hard to even get a feel for when you should go to bed," Nathan said. "I guess I caught a few naps, but I was certainly exhausted when we reached our destination."
So instead of sleeping, the airman sat alone on a transport plane for hours upon hours.
With eyes closed, he reached for those last few moments at home.
There was Lyndsay drawing at the kitchen table.
And there he was wrestling on the floor with Zachary -- taking a seat next to Suzanne on the couch once he had had enough.
But Nathan knows those days are behind him, for a few months if not longer.
The first few nights with Nathan gone were particularly hard on Suzanne and the children.
He had not been away long, but Suzanne was already feeling the weight of single parenthood.
Nathan would not be there to help make breakfast or see the children to school.
Suzanne would be the lone "referee" when Zachary provoked Lyndsay or vice versa.
But she admits keeping busy playing both mother and father had a perk -- it kept her mind off the scenes playing out daily on the news.
She would tell you that she never thought about the rising death totals in the Middle East, but could describe how the latest U.S. casualty occurred.
She said she was sleeping fine, but woke up at 3 every morning to check her e-mail.
Exhaustion set in quickly.
Worry and frustration came and went.
But Suzanne remained dedicated to "battle through."
There was no choice.
"It would have been easy just to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself," she said. "But when you're a parent, you can't do that. I can't just not be there for my kids."
She knew someone would have to keep Lyndsay focused on her reading and her art.
Zachary would need a "playmate" and "plenty of attention" without his father to roughhouse with him on the floor.
And then there were the functions -- Lyndsay's last day of kindergarten and when she started first grade, Zachary's soccer practices and swim lessons.
Life does not wait for a wife to cope with thoughts of a husband at war, Suzanne said.
So she woke up every day confident that she would make it through his tour -- but prepared to keep her family strong if something happened to Nathan.
Still, some days were harder to make it through than others.
She missed her husband the day Lyndsay walked across the stage at her kindergarten graduation.
Maybe it was the way the principal said, "OK students, when I call your name, I want you to stand and look at your family."
Or it might have been when Lyndsay won the 100 Book Club Award -- a feat Nathan shared in page for page.
Whatever the reason, June 5 was one of the "tough days."
Nathan had his share of them, too.
By the end of his first month, he had created as much of a home in the desert as can be expected.
Suzanne filled him in on happenings back in Wayne County via daily e-mails, and the children sent pictures, cards and letters for his office.
And most of the time, there was not much to worry about, Nathan said.
He had taken care of the "little things" before he deployed -- hoping to help his wife transition more easily into the role of single parent.
But he admits that preparing for a five-month tour was its own "battle."
"I needed to change the mower blades out so that whoever helps Suzanne with the yard won't have to worry about it ... I threw down some weed and feed and some ant killer that probably got washed away that same afternoon by heavy rains," Nathan said. "Making sure the car was ready was a headache as well. The Saturn has 115,000 miles on it now, and they are not exactly known for their reliability."
He knew there would be no way to makes things OK from the desert.
All he would be able to offer for the next 100-plus days would be occasional "I love you" calls and e-mails from an air traffic control tower on Kirkuk Regional Air Base.
So when he arrived in Iraq, Nathan took care of himself -- still thinking about the last moments he spent with his family -- but turning his focus to the mission at hand.
"Here, we live in MODS, just a long hall with rooms on either side and a bathroom at the end," he said in an e-mail from the desert. "When rotations switch out, there are more people in each room, but now that the rotation is over, we have four in the room.
"We all stretched out sheets between our bunks and makeshift dressers to provide a little bit of privacy," he added. "In the middle of the room, we have a small table and we bought a TV at the BX, mainly because I brought my X-Box."
Time off spent by the base pool and in front of the TV helped consume a mind that would have otherwise been focused on his family, Nathan said.
But some days, the only way to cope was to write them letters they might not see for decades -- special thoughts a father was never able to articulate to his wife and children back home until tragedy hit the desert.
It was June 17.
Nathan awoke early on Father's Day on command.
It was just after 3 a.m. when he was informed that a ceremony would be taking place on the flight line.
An American soldier had been killed.
So with tired eyes, Nathan and his comrades lined up in formation and saluted a flag-draped casket as it made its way down the tarmac and onto a plane.
"That's the kind of thing that shakes you up," he said. "I mean, it's Father's Day and you find out that this guy had a father and was a father. It kind of makes you think."
Nathan made sure to call his own father that day.
And afterward, he wrote letters to Zachary and Lyndsay -- part of a journal he says they will get one day when they are old enough to understand.
Suzanne knew her husband was in danger.
One day she asked, "What if he never comes home?"
Weeks earlier, Lyndsay had boarded a plane bound for her grandparents' house.
Suzanne was glad to offer her daughter a break from a summer at home without Nathan, but being home alone with Zachary -- a spitting image of his father -- made his absence more potent.
The day-to-day bored both the airman and his wife.
While one worked 10-hour shifts monitoring Allied aircraft, the other often woke up early, making sure to feed Zachary and send him off before going to work, coming home and greeting another night without her husband in the bed beside her.
"(It) was pretty boring to be honest," Suzanne said. "I worked, (Zachary) went to preschool at the YMCA. I tried to do fun things here and there."
Zachary loved the attention -- the ball games, nights at Chuck E. Cheese and having breakfast with Spiderman at a recreation center.
But his mother could not put his new bike together.
She would not play quite as rough as his father.
So when Lyndsay came home from her summer trip, he lit up.
"He was so excited," Suzanne said. "He ran to her calling her name and they held hands throughout the airport. Of course, they were fighting by the time we were back at the car, but they are buds for sure."
A mother watched her children reconnect after a season spent apart.
But Nathan was not there to share in the moment.
Suzanne knew it would be another month-plus before the real reunion took place.
Nathan was not happy about missing that scene at the airport.
But he admits that he had a lot on his plate.
He had left Seymour Johnson with intentions of ending his career in the Air Force shortly after his return home.
He just "could not bear" another tour or the thought of leaving Zachary, Lyndsay and Suzanne behind again.
But Aug. 11, he said he made one of the toughest decisions a deployed airman can -- he answered his country's call for four more years.
"For the past two years, I have been preparing to leave the military and give myself options for when that day came," Nathan said. "However, when it came time to decide, the Air Force seemed to be the right choice.
"It was both a happy and a sad day, but in the end, I am at peace with the decision. (It was) happy because serving in the Air Force has been a good experience so far, sad because I realize I am signing up for more separation, which is getting harder each time."
So when his plane left the Middle East, the technical sergeant said he knew it was "likely" that one day, he would land there again.
Suzanne was surprisingly excited by the news of her husband's re-enlistment.
Ironically, the Air Force is their "safety blanket," she said.
But don't talk about the possibility of him going back -- at least not until the Isemingers have had a chance to savor the fact that he is home.
Don't tell Suzanne how strong she was, or Nathan how proud he has made his country.
The couple would rather get back on that couch and watch some TV with their children.
Nathan is home after five months in the desert -- a father, a husband, and airman, their hero.
And there is not a care in the world.
"He knows when something is wrong. He knows when to hug a little longer. He makes me laugh like no one else can," Suzanne said. "He is my better half. I am only part of me when he is not here."
Love and family. That's all that matters now.
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