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Growing up while mom and dad are off fighting a war

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
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Parents deploy together, Skype with son
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Enlisted parents decide to leave 2-year-old with grandparents
  • "It was very difficult," boy's Marine dad says
  • But after 7-month separation, family to be together again
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Warsaw, Ohio (CNN) -- Seth Rice is a 2-year-old boy full of energy, curiosity and emotions. Watching him play with his toys, you don't notice any of the emotional toll that having a parent deploy can take on a little boy.

Let alone having both parents deploy, for nearly seven months simultaneously.

But that's what Seth's parents did, choosing to deploy to Afghanistan together, rather than have one stay home with Seth while the other deployed.

That decision may be hard for some parents to fathom, but for the Rices it was the best option.

"It was very difficult," Marine Staff Sgt. Jeff Rice said in an interview from Camp Leatherneck, where he and his wife are based.

"It took a lot of back-and-forth discussions," Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chat Rice said.

Part of what made the decision less difficult was Seth's age.

"We were thinking that a 2-year-old wouldn't remember too much of us being gone than if we had to do it when he was 7, when he'd remember the whole thing," Jeff explained.

Still, the day they left was hard for them. "It was a very difficult day. Just wanted to hold him, told him we loved him, and that we'd be home soon, even though he didn't understand that," Jeff said.

Chat couldn't put it into words: "I don't think a mother could ever describe that feeling, leaving your son."

The genesis of the idea came from previous deployments, when Chat would came back from the war zone and Jeff had to leave a few weeks later.

"She deployed to Iraq in 2004 and then as soon as she came back I deployed to Iraq in 2005 shortly after. It was about two weeks that we got to hang out together. It was very hard, because you try to catch up in those two weeks."

So when new orders came, they decided they wanted more time together as a couple, and that that meant leaving their 2-year-old in the States.

But that difficult decision was made much easier by Jeff's parents.

"They asked us if we would be willing to keep Seth and of course that was a no-brainer, we said yes," said Jamie Rice, Seth's grandfather.

"I'm just thankful that we've been able to be there, and spend time with him and see him a lot more than what we would have before," Pam Rice, Jeff's mother, said. "It's just been a blessing."

Seth and his parents live in Southern California, and most of his relatives on his father's side live in Ohio. So for the last seven months he's gotten to know that side of his family.

But perhaps the true saving grace for Jeff and Chat is a software application that wasn't even around when the war started in Afghanistan, the video chatting program Skype. The first time Jeff deployed to war, he wrote home only a few times.

Now, with high-speed internet connections, he and Chat can call home and see Seth and he can see them.

But since he's just 2, Seth is not the ideal video chatter yet.

Instead of talking to his parents on the computer, he'll play with balloons or his basketball. He even puts the basketball in front of the computer screen with his mother and father on it and ask them to shoot.

Jeff said these video chats are important to helping them cope.

"It's huge, because no matter how rough your day goes, we get to see our little son ... takes all the worries and everything away," Jeff said. "It really boosts your morale ... being able to see him grow day by day, and hearing the new words he learned to say and showing you everything he learned."

Having the ability to communicate so easily with the home front can be a double-edged sword for deployed troops, said Kelly Hruska of the National Military Family Association.

Hruska cites her own experience, as the wife of a soldier who deployed to Iraq but was frustrated when their daughter refused to Skype with him, avoiding the sessions.

"'Why doesn't she want to talk with me?'" Kelly recalls her husband asking.

"It was after a few months that we finally realized that her way of coping with the deployment was out-of-sight, out-of-mind. And that by talking to him on the phone, by Skyping with him -- it was just a reminder that he wasn't there and it was hard on her."

Technology also means troops can't immerse themselves in war, like they used to. For some, it means dealing with problems at home that previously would be out of sight, out of mind.

Jeff and Chat are expected to return to Southern California on Thursday, and that's when this difficult choice pays off. Instead of just a couple of weeks together, the Rice family will have months and months without much concern that either parent or both will have to head off to war again.

Perhaps the only regrets on that day will be from Seth's grandparents. "We're already dreading letting him go back because we're gonna miss him, so I can't imagine how his parents feel," Jamie said. "It would just be devastating, I think."

Chris Lawrence contributed to this report.

 
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