It’s not every day you get to meet a veteran with six deployments. It’s even more rare to meet one whose sole mission was to bring happiness and peace of mind to those around them and back home in the U.S.
Fort Bliss welcomed home such an all-American hero from Afghanistan, Kung-fu grip and all.
Military families have unique opportunities, but they also often spend time apart. As the tireless traveling companion of St. Johns, Arizona native, and 1st Armored Division Chaplain Lt. Col. Douglas Ball II, Bosnia Bob started his service to the nation as a creative way for Chaplain Ball and his wife Sarah to help explain this hardship to their children.
“My first deployment was in 2003 to Bosnia, and I took him with me as kind of a Flat Stanley for the kids. The kids named him Bosnia Bob and that’s been his name ever since.
He’s been to Bosnia, Iraq, a Kuwait/ Qatar deployment and this is his third tour in Afghanistan,” Ball said.
For 245 years, the U.S. Army has been there bravely for America when it has been needed. Military families use creative efforts to make enduring such separations or hardships more manageable.
“Bosnia Bob started because our oldest son Robbie was born during Doug’s first deployment, so I was starting to buy boy toys, and Doug grew up playing with G.I. Joes on his ranch, so I thought this will be a really fun way for him to connect with his son. I bought them as a two-pack,” said Sarah.
While Bosnia Bob has been around the globe and back and earned some serious Sky miles, the other doll sadly did not survive Robbie’s toddler years.
“It’s great because he always takes pictures of him doing things. So we have these postcards and photos of Bosnia Bob in these various places,” she said.
“For our kids, it was a fun way for them to connect to where he is and feel like they’re more connected to what their Dad is doing,” said Sarah.
Over the course of many deployments and evolving technology, the means for sharing Bob’s deployment experiences has changed as well.
During his first deployment, the Ball family lived in Auburn, Nebraska and they used the extra deployment money to install dial-up internet which was rare in the rural area at the time.
In later deployments, photos were mailed or emailed. This most recent deployment was the first in which all the children were old enough to have their own cellphones, so they could connect directly with their father and Bob, seeing the pictures through social media apps like Facebook Messenger.
“Ever since I was little, Bosnia Bob has always been present. For us, as kids, it was hard to understand deployment, and the weight of the deployment, and what it means to have a parent absent for a long time,” their daughter Rachel said.
“But having a little G.I. Joe character attached to the backpack, sitting on deployment with Dad doing cool things makes it more understandable, more accessible, a very lighthearted way to look at deployment. It’s a very optimistic way to look at what a deployment actually is,” Rachel said.
Bosnia Bob has been a part of Rachel’s life since her father’s first deployment when she was two. She is now 20 years old.
With six deployments under his plastic belt, Bob has more combat time than most Soldiers in the division. He’s also endured an extra month-long extension with Ball in Afghanistan as an abundance of caution during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
While Bob’s travels started as a means to entertain his family, Ball said having Bob as a traveling companion opened doors for conversations and brought happiness to many others along his many deployments.
“He often sparks up conversations with Soldiers about their children - since many of them carry something for the sake of those kids as well. I'll often find out about the stuffed animal traveling inside a bag, or even special pictures of family that Soldiers carry on their person. In general though, he just brings a smile to faces; from flight attendants, to Soldiers, to family members,” Ball said.
One of the questions that comes up often is if he is a personalized action figure, since he’s blonde and in the Army as well. But Ball joked “Alas, I'm not quite that muscled, and the resemblance is coincidental.”
Resiliency of Military families
While this creative effort has worked over many years to keep the Ball family more connected, Chaplain Ball had advice for other families who struggle to maintain their bond when separated across distances or long periods of time.
“First, it is important to find the rhythm and methods of communication that works for them - there is no cookie-cutter answer. My wife and I use email, messenger, phone calls, and video for different types of communication, and this has evolved over the six deployments. Second, focus on quality time and strong relationships when you can be together. Separation does not drive people apart or hurt healthy relationships, but it can be devastating to cracked and hurting relationships. We don't always get the quantity of time with our spouses and children we’d like, but we can make the time we have with them quality time,” he said.
Army Families are an incredible source of strength for Soldiers and make selfless contributions to support them and the nation.
As a father and someone who helps Soldiers and their families as part of his daily duties, Ball said he’s relieved that his family has adapted so well to the military lifestyle.
“Many children are remarkably well-adapted to constant Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, repetitive deployments, and the constant changes of military schedules. My children can't imagine living in the same place your whole life! Those families that embrace the community and purpose of the military are amazingly adaptable and resilient, and many of them learn to value and appreciate every duty station for what is available,” said Ball.
The Chaplain Corps is committed to investing in people, connecting them in spirit, and cultivating community, physically and virtually, regardless of the operating conditions the Army faces.
Ball became a Chaplain’s candidate in 1998 following his Army ROTC commission from John Brown University as a signal officer. He became a Chaplain in the Nebraska National Guard in 2001 and has been on active duty as a Chaplain since 2005.
He is a 2000 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with a Masters of Divinity, and completed his Doctorate of Ministry from Denver Seminary in 2019 before joining 1st Armored Division where he serves as the Division Chaplain for more than 17,000 Soldiers.
Directly supporting the Army philosophy of “People First,” the Chaplain Corps leverages creative and innovative approaches to counseling, spiritual care and all Religious Support programs, including religious services.
Chaplains like Ball help build Army spiritual readiness to deploy, fight, and win our Nation's wars by providing reliable and relevant world-class religious support; a unique element of the Army that is fully engaged across the full spectrum of conflict.
“With Chaplaincy in general, I love the fact that we get to go wherever our Soldiers go and do what they do. So in some ways, deployment ministry is the best part of the job because you’re out there with people. It’s that ability to go with them when they go to the field, deploy with them when they deploy; just getting to be there with them in their worst places,” said Ball.