As we honored the birth of our nation this month, I found myself reflecting upon the servicemen and women and their families who celebrate birthdays, accomplishments and many holidays thousands of miles away from one another.
What incredible strength they all must have to accept being separated from loved ones for months on end.
One of my extended family members is among these soldiers, proudly fighting for our country's freedom far from his wife, baby and entire family.
A 27-year-old captain in the Army, Tim Ashcraft is serving his second tour in Afghanistan. As commander of C Company, 1-501 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, he is in charge of about 50 soldiers and flies an Apache helicopter. Tim is my brother-in-law Chris' brother, and as close-knit as we are, we consider the entire Ashcraft clan family as well.
Tim deployed last February. His wife, Ashley, and their baby, Adeline, exchanged hugs and kisses with Tim and watched him depart on what is scheduled to be a nine-month deployment. The couple is native to Tucson, so Ashley and their then 3-month old traveled from El Paso to Tucson to be with family while Tim is away.
I am amazed at how strong Ashley is, raising their young baby while living day-to-day not knowing what danger her husband may be in. When asked what keeps her strong, Ashley told me it's her faith in God, phone calls from Tim, being near family and friends and serving as a co-leader in a group that helps support fellow military families.
Keeping busy with her daughter - whose nickname is "Addie" - and going to church and a Bible study help as well.
"When Tim is deployed, I'm inherently worried, but when I find myself fearful, I find peace in knowing that God is in control, he is Tim's protector, and his plan is for Tim to be deployed. I have confidence in Tim's leadership and the exceptional skill of his company to keep them all safe," Ashley relayed to me.
The latest technology is wonderful for keeping in touch with those serving overseas. Ashley was on Skype via her cellphone speaking with Tim when many family members were together celebrating my nephew's birthday early this summer. Ashley passed the phone around so Tim could touch base with his loved ones. It's difficult to imagine how he felt - his family together while he spoke to them from so far away.
Unfortunately, Ashley hasn't been able to Skype with Tim since early June, due to undisclosed events that took place where he is stationed.
Ashley does talk to Tim on the phone anywhere from daily to weekly, depending on his schedule. She says those calls help keep Tim strong during the deployment.
"You can definitely tell a difference in his demeanor when he is not able to call home. Also, he truly believes in his job and being a leader to his soldiers," Ashley told me.
Tim is able to check email every day, so Ashley sends several video clips of their daughter throughout the day. She also sends pictures and monthly DVDs to show Addie's growth and milestones.
"I just want to document everything for Tim so he can see all of her firsts that he would see if he was home," Ashley said.
Ashley says that Tim shows his sincere love for their daughter, all the way from Afghanistan.
"When he talks to Addie on speaker phone, his voice takes on a whole new tone of pure joy as he greets her, tells her how much he misses her, how gorgeous she is and sings to her. I can hear him light up when she babbles or laughs, and the concern when she cries. The only way he can express his love to her is through his voice, and she certainly recognizes it each time he calls."
Ashley and Tim find many ways to help Addie, now 8 months old, create a close relationship with her daddy while he is deployed. Before he left, Tim recorded books and sang a song that now plays from a stuffed animal.
Ashley made a photo book of family pictures, shows videos of Tim and Addie, and has a lifesize cutout portraying Tim kneeling down, since that is how Tim will likely greet his daughter when they reunite. Addie has a special blanket and a soldier doll with Tim's face on it. The doll is from Operation Give a Hug, which you can find at www.ogah.org online - the dolls are donated to children of military parents.
The couple finds ways to keep their marriage strong while Tim is away. They pray for each other and are participating in a marriage devotional via email and phone. They also talk as much as possible.
Next up for Tim once he is home? He's heading to graduate school - possibly at the University of Arizona - to work toward a degree in aeronautical engineering. He's already received acceptance to teach classes in that field at West Point, his alma mater.
A heartfelt thank-you to Tim and family as well as to all members of the military and their families. Your courage and strength inspire me, and I am grateful for your service. Tim, we look forward to your homecoming in what we pray will be a short few months.
Email Sarah McKeown at firstname.lastname@example.org