By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneSeptember 3, 2009
"Hi, Bree, Bree! I love you."
"I love you!"
"You look pretty."
"Thank you, daddy."
Two-year-old Briana Payne did, indeed, look pretty in a red, white and blue sundress that she wore just for her daddy, Sgt. Jeffrey Payne.
Briana's dad got to see her all dressed up thanks to a video teleconference that brought families of the Reserve's 375th Engineer Company together with their deployed Soldiers for a few minutes of big-screen-TV family time.
The teleconference was arranged by Lockheed Martin at the company's Huntsville headquarters as part of the Aug. 22 Blue Star Service Banner program for the families of the 159 deployed Soldiers. It was the first time such a large-scale video teleconference has been conducted in Huntsville on behalf of deployed Soldiers, said organizer David Carney.
For the families in attendance, the chance to see and talk to their Soldier made the Blue Star Service Banner program even more special.
"We have web cam. But it doesn't work all that well and our computer broke so we can only talk by phone right now," said Briana's big sister, 10-year-old MacKenzie Payne. "When we do talk to him, it's really late here or it's really late there. It's hard to communicate with him."
When the sisters and their mother, Nicolette, first saw Payne on the big screen, they saw their Soldier raise his hands in excitement.
"Daddy's silly," Briana said, laughing.
Two months into the 375th's deployment to Iraq, the Payne family of Athens is learning how to adjust without their Soldier at home.
"The important thing is staying busy," Nicolette Payne said. "I also had to quit my job. My husband worked security at the hospital and I worked in radiology on the weekend shift. But with him gone, I can't do that. It's a little tough. But we're making it. It's all worth it."
The Blue Star Service Banner program included words of appreciation from Rep. Parker Griffith, State Rep. Howard Sanderford and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. During the program, sponsored by the Redstone/Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, families were presented with a Blue Star Banner provided by the American Legion Post 237, an AUSA coin and words of encouragement. Following the program, the Madison/Marshall County Chapter of the American Red Cross provided family and financial counseling.
But the heart of the program was the time the families got to spend talking with their Soldiers via the video teleconference.
Landon Morse, 4, could barely stay still when talking to his dad.
"Are you being a good boy'" his dad, Staff Sgt. Jay Morse asked.
His son nodded his head, smiled and then gave his dad an order: "Hurry home before it starts raining! We'll see you at Christmas time!"
Sgt. 1st Class Richard Blair was treated to a rousing performance of "Happy Birthday to You!" from his three daughters, wife and other family members. But then his two older daughters wanted to talk school.
"Daddy, I made a 100 on my math test," said Emilie Anne, who wore a pink shirt that said "My dad is my hero."
"Daddy, I made a 100 on my spelling test," said Briar Rose.
And like any good dad, Blair told both girls "That's great! That's awesome!"
The sisters - along with younger sister Madalynn - are spending their time away from dad learning about horses and taking horseback riding lessons, getting ready for a Halloween party and planning a trip to DisneyWorld for Madalynn's birthday.
"This is his third deployment," mom Michele Blair said. "It's a little bit harder because the kids are older."
While most families kept their video conversations light with funny comments and stories from young children, there were also poignant moments, such as the tearful exchange between Terrye Preatt of Decatur and her husband, Sgt. Thomas Preatt.
While his wife brushed tears from her eyes, Thomas Preatt tried to sound cheerful, saying "I love you ... I miss you, too. Send me some beer."
But, after the laughter died down, Thomas Preatt quickly ended the exchange with his wife by saying "I'm going to start crying if I keep talking here."
"I miss him so much," his wife said, after saying goodbye.
Connecting Soldiers with their families is important during a deployment, said Reserve Maj. Wendy Rodriquez, a family readiness group leader assisting the 375th.
"Taking care of families and letting Soldiers know we are taking care of families is an absolute priority," she said.
The 375th Engineer Company includes Soldiers from north Alabama and south Tennessee. Organizer Carney said the Blue Star Service Banner program is designed to let the families and Soldiers know that the community does support them and appreciates their sacrifice.
Griffith, who worked with returning Soldiers after Vietnam, told the families during the program "we recognize that the kitchen tables are not the same when they're not here. We're here to show our support for the Soldiers fighting the good fight for us and our international allies. We appreciate you more than you know."
Sanderford presented the 375th with a proclamation of appreciation from the state legislature.
"We appreciate what you are doing and the sacrifices you are making. We wish you godspeed in returning home," he said.
Battle said the deployment of the 375th was the first deployment he was involved in as a public official. During the unit's April deployment ceremony, he took a picture of the Soldiers on his phone camera and made it his screen saver.
"Hurry home so I can change that screen saver," he told the Soldiers.
The Soldiers on the other end of the video teleconference were quiet during most of the ceremony. They let their commander, Capt. David Borders, speak on their behalf.
"We appreciate everybody being there and your continued support," he said to his Huntsville audience.
"We're doing well here. Everybody is extremely busy and to the four winds here. We're at uptempo in Iraq as we make the transition between us and the Iraqis. We're working hand in hand and training Iraqis to do our jobs so we don't have to come back and do this again."
But words of appreciation weren't the only things conveyed during the teleconference. 1st Lt. Alan Moss told of the unit's efforts in adopting an Iraqi school known as Khair Al Janoob.
"We request help in supporting this school," he said. "Please send school supplies. We will present these supplies at the school during a ribbon cutting ceremony."
Family members are finding their own ways to cope with the deployment. Julia Jernigan, wife of Spc. Christopher Jernigan, keeps herself busy managing a restaurant in Shelbyville, Tenn.
"I work 70 hours a week. With him being gone, it's a good way to make the time go by fast," she said.
Working, spending time with family and friends, taking care of children, keeping a full schedule and focusing on the future are all ways to cope with a deployment.
Courtney Justice, wife of Sgt. Anthony Justice, is going to school at Northwest Technical College, playing college volleyball and helped coach a Little League softball team.
"It's rough from day to day," she said. "I'm getting used to it. We talk every day by Internet and web cam. And I'm living with my mom so we can save money. When he comes back, we are going to buy a house."