One Minnesota family facing the realities of military deployment – the Nelsons – fit the classic archetype of the “all-American” nuclear unit in just about every way: Darron and Melanie are raising two busy teenagers, Annie and Ben, and they have an aging, cancer-surviving pup named Bob. Annie is passionate about school musicals and gymnastics, while Ben is an artist. Bob’s collar makes jingle-jangle sounds when he walks.
But of course, one particular detail sets this family apart: Melanie is not just a mom. She’s also Captain Nelson, a full-time member of the Minnesota National Guard. Her service means that she is often away at drill or training at Camp Ripley – and she has also experienced an overseas deployment. Along with more than 600 other soldiers, Captain Nelson recently spent 10 months in Kuwait, a time away from her family that she says felt like 17 years.
As a Twin Cities PBS producer, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of resilient families facing the challenges of military deployment over the course of the past 10 years. In Iraq & Back: Minnesotans’ Stories, I followed half a dozen soldiers and families through their year apart. In Bridging War & Hope, I focused on the mission of a small team of soldiers with Minnesota ties who spent a year in Afghanistan; and in We’re In This Together, I explored how families react and change during war-time deployments. Through each of these productions, I have met the children of soldiers – and in every encounter, I thought of my own children wondered how they – and my wife and I – would cope.
During embeds in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve experienced tearful good-byes with my family, knowing that I would be home in a few short weeks. Turn short weeks into long months – or nearly a year – and it’s difficult to imagine how my family and I would handle being apart for such a long period of time.
Depending on the age of the children, having to say good-bye to their service-member parent for long stretches of time can be an agonizing experience – and their ability to cope and to understand varies greatly. In 1986, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger spearheaded an effort to recognize the sacrifices experienced in the homes of our service men and women, particularly among children – and the Month of the Military Child, which lands in April, was the result.
In a typical year, there would be programs taking place in schools and in community gathering places. But the impact of COVID-19 has resulted in the cancellation of most events associated with this year’s celebration. But one that will continue, albeit in a different, virtual format, is an online art contest hosted by the Minnesota National Guard.
In the Nelson family, Ben is a talented, dedicated young artist who is working on a piece he plans to submit before the April 30th deadline. At the time I interviewed him and his family, he was hard at work on his picture of a line of people – standing behind a person in uniform – waiting to check out at a cash register. Though the portrait isn’t finished just yet, it’s a safe bet that it will end up on his Instagram page.
As Minnesotans shelter in place, many of them are finding creative ways to cope with a new reality that would have been unimaginable in the early weeks of 2020. Discover more stories in out collection Coronavirus in Minnesota.
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.
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