The moment a family locks eyes with a loved one returning from a lengthy tour of duty is a flash in time that is likely never to be forgotten.
My brother-in law’s brother, Tim Ashcraft, just got back from an 8ƒ-month stint in Afghanistan. As an Army captain, this was Tim’s second time serving there; his most recent was from February until his return home last month.
Back in July, I wrote about Tim and his wife, Ashley Ashcraft — both 28 and 2003 Sahuaro High School grads — and how they work hard to ensure their now 1-year-old daughter Adeline kept in touch with her daddy while he was deployed.
After all, Adeline, nicknamed Addie, was only 3 months old when Tim deployed. I am happy to report that Adeline now has her daddy back home, safe and sound.
I had been keeping up to date on Tim’s well-being via Ashley’s blog, as well as parents Dave and Joan Ashcraft’s regular updates to friends and family. A quick email here and there plus a few posts to Facebook let us know that while he was in a danger zone, Tim was doing all right.
So excitement paired with relief when Ashley announced the tentative return date for Tim and his company of soldiers. They were due to arrive Oct. 17 at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Many family members made the drive from Tucson to welcome Tim home. While I wasn’t physically present for the homecoming, pictures, emails and blog posts made me feel as though I was there for the joyful, emotional and tearful reunion.
Ashley posted photos on her blog, saying that for now they’d allow for a “taste of his homecoming.”
It definitely was the best “taste of a homecoming” I’ve ever had, filled with so much emotion that it radiated through the computer screen as my eyes filled with tears while I caught glimpse after glimpse of the reunion of the Ashcraft family.
Even though I know Tim is safely home, I continued to get teary-eyed on and off for several days after his return while I read more accounts of the reunion and viewed the pictures of a family reunited.
And, wow, the pictures truly spoke a thousand words: Ashley anxiously awaiting the first glimpse of the airplane Tim was traveling on. Ashley holding Adeline while explaining that her daddy is about to come home. Tim walking onto the tarmac with a huge smile on his face. The first kiss and hug shared between husband and wife. A precious baby girl inquisitively studying her camouflage-clad daddy, whom she’d last seen in person nearly nine months before.
Photo after photo contains smiles, hugs and an incredible sense of relief and overflowing love.
An excerpt from Dave and Joan’s email following Tim’s return speaks volumes:
“Tim’s homecoming at Fort Bliss was right on schedule and, needless to say, filled with emotion and lots of joy. The text we received from him earlier in the day from Bangor, Maine, said, ‘We’re back in America again.’ Seeing his name and number come up on our cellphones was almost unbelievable.”
When the lights of the plane appeared, spouses, children, other family members and friends watched with great anticipation, realizing that seeing their soldiers was now only moments away. When the plane landed, the crowd of approximately 300 applauded and cheered.
Once the soldiers were debriefed, loved ones flooded to reconnect with their soldiers. A hundred and fifty soldiers were reunited with their families that evening.
Tim told me he became emotional as he approached his wife and baby, and when he finally saw them, it was surreal.
Before Tim’s return, Ashley spent time preparing herself emotionally and spiritually for the transition they were about to embark upon. And the moment she saw the plane land, the tears poured out.
“For the first time in nine months, I knew he was safe. Before then, you can only hope and pray,” she said.
Ashley told me that the instant she saw Tim in the crowd, she’s sure she pushed some soldiers out of the way to get to her husband.
“Embracing him and knowing he’s safe released a raw wave of relief I don’t think one experiences in any other scenario,” she said.
Settling in as a family
I wanted to know more about those first moments when Ashley, Tim and little Adeline reconnected, after spending months thousands of miles apart.
They’re Tucson natives, so many of Tim and Ashley’s relatives and friends live here. After getting settled back in El Paso, the threesome spent a week visiting their hometown. That’s when I got to learn more about Tim’s homecoming, as well as how they’re adjusting now that their family is together again.
Talking with the couple, who’ve been married four years, I learned right away that things don’t return to normal immediately, as many might expect. They are in what’s called a transition or “reintegration” period that lasts an average of three months from the time a military-service member returns home.
The good thing is, since this is the second time around for the couple, they’re finding it’s already been an easier transition as they know what to expect this time.
During the reintegration period, families acclimate to one another after their lengthy separation. As Ashley told me, couples have to learn how to work together and care for their children as a team again — and sometimes for the first time.
With a new home since he’s been gone as well as a now very active daughter, Tim must take time to familiarize himself with their house, discover the needs of their growing child, and adjust to having a safe environment to sleep in.
“Getting into a normal sleep pattern again has been the most difficult thing for me. Our sleep was constantly interrupted for various reasons … so it’s taking some time to adjust to sleeping completely through the night again,” Tim said.
Overall, Tim said Ashley “set the conditions” perfectly for his homecoming.
“Ashley understood how much rest I would need, what to expect — or not to expect — and was ever patient in my learning how to be a dad to Adeline.”
The couple had a resounding answer to my question of what they found was easiest to readjust to. They both said it’s their affection and love for one another.
“As much as I hated being away from them, it made me truly appreciate the two greatest blessings in my life – my wife and daughter,” Tim said.
As for Adeline, she is quickly adjusting to Daddy being back home. Tim credits Ashley with teaching their daughter about him through a variety of means, including pictures and Skype (online video conferencing).
For Tim, Skype served as the perfect “getaway” from the combat zone.
“Seeing Ashley and Adeline at the end of the day kept me going in the toughest of times, and I like to think that it helped Addie adapt to me more quickly,” he said.
The week before Tim arrived home Adeline learned to say “Da-Da,” and within a day of his return, she wanted to be with him more than anybody else.
Tim says he’ll never forget the first time she reached out her arms to him.
“Holding Adeline is the perfect balance to the high-paced tempo of combat. It lets me reflect on why we were sent to combat in the first place.”
Up next, Tim will be applying to grad school. The University of Arizona is one of his top choices. His family will eventually end up at West Point, where Tim will teach classes in aeronautical engineering, which is what he will receive his degree in.
“Commanding in combat has been the greatest professional honor of my lifetime; however, I’m looking forward to devoting the years ahead to my family. They have sacrificed so much — in my opinion, more than I’ve ever had to — and deserve more stability and some quality time together,” Tim said.
While his deployment was tough, Tim says soldiers like himself are now given more luxuries, including use of the Internet, a bed, air conditioning and heat, than many soldiers who served in the past.
“So many veterans were never afforded these comforts, nor were they given the incredible welcome home that we were and that they truly deserved. Their sacrifices helped keep my experience in perspective no matter how ‘tough’ I thought our deployment was.”
The couple is grateful for having so many family members and friends support them through their latest journey of deployment, and Ashley wants to thank everyone who prayed for Tim’s safety.
“Your prayers truly mattered and made the difference in my soldier coming home alive,” she said.
Tim echoed her thoughts.
“First, I want to thank everyone who prayed for my company and me, many of whom I know and many of whom I’ll never meet. Secondly, I want to thank my family for providing the love, support and comfort to my wife and daughter that I couldn’t while I was gone.”
We are so glad you’re home, Tim. For all soldiers currently deployed, hopes and prayers go out to you for a safe and happy homecoming.