Family service: Adjusting to deployments just part of life for Deer Creek clan
Melony Butler didn't say goodbye when her husband deployed to Iraq in 2004. She didn't say goodbye when two of her sons deployed either.
"None of us are good at goodbyes," she said. "We say, 'we'll see you later.'"
Send-offs and welcome homes are the milestones of Butler's life as a military wife and mother. Butler, 42, raised a flag over her Deer Creek home when her husband, Blaine, 35, left for Iraq in 2004. She raised another flag when son, Cody McManigle, 23, deployed shortly after Blaine's return. And she raised a third flag when son, Mitchell Kahlstorf, 21, went to Afghanistan in June.
She's welcomed Blaine and Cody back and anticipates Mitchell's return in the spring.
The deployments are difficult and so is the readjustment when they return home, but she's proud of her military family. Her husband and her three oldest sons all joined the National Guard as juniors in high school.
"Not everyone can be a soldier," she said. "I'm grateful that my kids grew up to be soldiers. It gives me great pride and honor."
Not everyone can be a soldier's wife, either.
"It takes someone special to love soldiers," she said. "Not everyone can do it."
Deployments are survivable, she said, but that doesn't mean they aren't difficult.
When Blaine was deployed she learned to be independent and self sufficient, she said. She had to learn tasks she normally didn't do before. Taking care of the car, winterizing your home and who to call if the furnace goes out are some of the things the local Family Readiness Group taught her and other spouses.
What can go wrong normally does go wrong during a deployment, she said. When Blaine was gone she totaled her car and a tree landed on the house when a tornado came through Deer Creek.
Butler went from raising kids as part of a couple to single parenthood for the year.
She's had enough experience with deployments to learn a few lessons along the way.
"Three deployments later I'm not afraid to pick up the phone and ask for help," she said.
The FRG is very supportive and so is the whole community, she said. Neighbors offer help and law enforcement stop in to see how she's doing. The Honor Ride grows every year, she said.
"Military life is hard during those times," Butler said.
Waiting for a phone call from a loved one doesn't help, she learned.
"Don't wait by the phone because sometimes that can be the longest wait you've ever waited for," she said. "You have to live, you have to still function."
She used the Internet to communicate.
"Letters were like pony express so we had to learn instant messaging," she said.
She sent lots of care packages with picture books, snack food that doesn't melt and treats for them to give to the Iraqi children. The Blow Pops were a big hit, she said.
Butler also got some packages in return. She had Blaine send her his shirts so she could have his smell with her.
"The humor is they wear it in 100-some degree heat," she said. "By the time you open it up out of the post office box it's more smell than what you want to deal with."
Airing it out for a minute did the trick, she said. Their youngest son Preston, now 6, slept with one of his dad's shirts.
People ask if it makes her sad when they're gone. She doesn't feel sad, but she misses them, she said.
"I miss their hug and their sense of humor," she said.
There isn't anything like the hug when they come home, she said.
Butler waited at a mile marker outside of Motley to welcome Blaine with flags waving when the troops' charter bus brought them back.
"Coming home is much easier than going," she said.
But it's still an adjustment. She had feelings of anticipation and also fear, she said.
"You don't know what's changed in them ... or what they've seen," she said. "And yet you're just so grateful that they're home."
The family is still adjusting to Blaine and Cody returning, she said.
"You can't believe that they're there," Butler said. "It takes a while to get used to having them next to you again."
Soldiers need time to readjust and diffuse, Butler said. Military families get training on reintegration and have the opportunity to go on marriage retreats.
"They need to learn how to deal with what they went through," she said.
Spouses need to learn to hand responsibilities back over, but not too soon, she said.
Communication has probably been the hardest thing in her family, Butler said.
"They're in soldier mode," she said. And soldiers talk to each other in a different manner.
Blaine said sometimes it's easier to talk to people who have been through similar stuff. He knew it was challenging for his wife to have to be at home and not know what's going on, he said. He encouraged her not to watch the news.
"When you watch the news they show the same scenes over and over again and you start to think it's way worse than it is," he said.
Butler said it was frustrating to watch news coverage that focused so much on negative events and not on the positive ones.
"What they're doing is just and what they've accomplished is huge," she said.
She wants to honor soldiers by letting people know they should support soldiers and veterans regardless of their views on the war, she said.
She competed in the Mrs. Minnesota International Pageant and is the reigning Mrs. Otter Tail County.
"My platform is supporting military soldiers and families," she said.
She also enrolled in college full time utilizing benefits from the military. She plans to get a counseling degree specializing in post traumatic stress disorder and alcohol and chemical dependency, she said.
Butler said she's no different from the other women in the Wadena unit.
"They are all very strong, independent, self-sufficient women that support their soldiers and keep their families intact," she said.
Michael Baumann, 19, said his mom has always been there as somebody to talk to.
He told his brothers that he loved them when they deployed, he said. It was a little harder when Mitchell deployed in June because he was at annual training.
"[I] said I loved him," Michael said. "Pretty much assured yourself that it wasn't a goodbye it was just a new phase."
Cody told Mitchell to keep himself alive, he said.
"He's my best friend," Cody said.
They do everything together including playing softball and baseball and riding bull, he said.
Mitchell took his rope with him, Butler said. He also took a photo of Preston in an Army outfit. Preston is their Lil' Tanker, she said.
As much as the family doesn't like to say goodbye they had to send Mitchell off.
Her family isn't unique, Butler said. There are thousands of families who experience the same feelings and emotions whether they've gone through one or multiple deployments.
"As much as the soldiers bond, the families bond," Butler said.
When her husband left she remembers crying at the departure ceremony in Wadena.
"I was telling my mom I can't do this, I'm scared, I'm hurt and I'm already alone," Butler said. "My mom said 'you can't pick and choose when you're going to be patriotic.'"
That advice helped her keep things in perspective, she said.
"You learn how to love more," Butler said. "You learn how to love long distance."