War hits home for Williston family (12/23/09)

Father will be deployed to Afghanistan

Dec. 23, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

When your spouse is a soldier soon leaving for Afghanistan, there is a time to worry and a time to put it out of your mind. On the cusp of Christmas, Jennifer Lunna for now has picked the latter.

“You know, I’m really not thinking about it,” she said. “I’m thinking about the holidays and getting through that. The emotions are really like a raw nerve, so we haven’t talked about it as a family.”

Her husband, Sgt. Maj. Stephen Lunna, will depart next month for his second deployment to Afghanistan.

The couple and their two children, Cassandra, 13, and Shania, 10, talked about how they will cope with his yearlong absence during an interview Friday at their Williston home.

The kids sprawled on the couch while Zorah and Thunder, their Labrador retrievers, curled up on the floor nearby. (Two other children from Jennifer’s prior marriage, Sierra and Veronica, were not present.)

Prior experience — Stephen served in Afghanistan during an 18-month deployment in 2005-06 — and two years advance notice this time have made preparations for the current assignment a little easier, the couple said. Still, there’s nothing routine about heading to a war zone and leaving your family behind.

“I’m not as stressed about this one as I was the first one,” Stephen said. “I feel confident of Jennifer’s ability to handle anything and everything that comes up.”

But he acknowledged that he’s been trying to tie up loose ends — will the snowplowing service clear the driveway? Does she have the plumber’s number? — before he leaves.

Stephen Lunna is among the roughly 1,500 Vermont National Guard members headed to Afghanistan, the largest deployment since World War II and one that includes 10 soldiers from Williston. He is scheduled to depart for training Jan. 10 before heading overseas.

Like Lunna, many of his fellow soldiers have been there before. At least half of Vermont National Guard members going to or already in Afghanistan are on their second deployment, said Capt. Kate Irish, a Guard spokeswoman.

Circumstances have changed for the better since Stephen’s first deployment. Back then, they lived in Jeffersonville, an isolated town that was a long way from stores and services.

They had a dial-up Internet connection, so sending e-mail was problematic. Stephen instead stayed in touch by using a cheap cell phone.

The couple agreed in advance that he would tell Jennifer everything, leaving no room for her imagination to roam. But she avoided watching television news and shielded the children from alarming war reports.

“It was easier last time because I kind of cocooned them,” she said.” I’ll try the best I can (this time), but they’re more aware of things.”

This deployment will be eased by the family’s more central location and increased support services for military families.

For example, Cassandra and Shania are in a group for military children at Williston Central School. Shania said she is not sure talking about her dad’s military service with other kids helps.

“It makes me think about it more,” she said softly. “I get scared.”

During the last deployment, the couple tried to help their young children by hanging up a map of Afghanistan to show them where dad was stationed. They also sent a package filled with their toys to Afghan children.

With another deployment looming, Jennifer said the children have “been a little on edge, both around each other and with us.”

The family is bracing for the inevitable disruption when Stephen leaves. Jennifer has told her boss that she can no longer work the late shift at her job as an X-ray technologist at Northwest Medical Center in St. Albans.

Shania noted that when she and her sister miss the after-school bus, they will no longer be able to bum a ride from dad, who normally works across the street at the Williston Armory. Even the dogs’ routine will change: Jennifer won’t let them hop into bed before she rises in the morning, as Stephen does.

Barbara Purinton, an assistant with the Family Readiness Program at the Williston Armory, said many military families face similar challenges. In addition to what she hears from soldiers through her job, Purinton has firsthand experience: Both her daughter, Caitlin, and her husband, Charles, have been deployed overseas. Caitlin was in Kuwait from 2004-05 and Charles was in Iraq from 2005-06.

Prior deployments can help, Purinton said, but knowing what to expect can also create unhappy anticipation.

“In a way, it’s easier because you know what needs to be done to be ready,” she said. “But it’s harder because you know how long it is and how hard it is when they are away from home.”

Unlike the many part-time Guard members being deployed, Lunna, 50, had made the military his career. A towering man with the requisite closed-cropped hair, he has served in the Vermont Army National Guard for 27 years, rising to the highest enlisted rank.

He comes from a long line of military members. His father, mother and uncle all served during World War II. His sister and cousin were enlisted during the Vietnam era. Five family members now serve in the Vermont National Guard.

Stephen said when he leaves he will most miss the little things about family life, such as watching television together and going to the kids’ soccer games. Now that they have high-speed Internet service at home, he plans to stay in touch via online video transmitted between his laptop and the computer back home.

The couple’s effort to keep their sense of humor despite having their life upended came into sharp focus as they talked about the sacrifices of military families.

“All the hard work is with Jennifer,” Stephen said. “I leave and I have everything taken care of for me. Someone feeds me, someone clothes me, someone washes my clothes for me.”

“He’s a little baby!” his wife interjected, laughing.

“She is now a single parent having to deal with twice as much of the effort,” Stephen continued. “So it’s all her. The families are the ones that have to work hard when we deploy.”