Remembrance Day


Dad's away

Getting hitched to a soldier means dealing with emotional landmines

By BERNIE PILON -- Edmonton Sun

"Dad's Departure" -- Tanner Jackson looks up at his dad as they wait in the check-in line at the airport. -- Photo by Christine Vanzella
 Guns-and-glory recruitment campaigns always wax poetic about military life. They tug at the heartstrings of adventure seekers, weaving bravado and patriotism into the very fabric of uniforms proudly worn by Canada's fighting men and women.

 Come-hither ads never chirp a peep, however, about emotional landmines left on the home front when soldiers go away for months at time.

 "Oh, God, it's really hard sometimes. Really hard," admits Patricia Jackson, a military wife since 1989 - and two-time veteran of the travails of having an absentee military mate for up to six months at a stretch.

 The former Patricia Hillier, born in the Newfoundland outpost of Botwood on June 23, 1962, must have the blood of a seafarer's spouse flowing in her veins.

 The wife of Sgt. Kevin Jackson - one of 1,100 Edmonton soldiers keeping the peace in Bosnia - may, when pressed, lament the cruelties of having to tackle two kids solo. She's proof that getting hitched to a trooper means dealing with hazards not covered in boot camp.

 Live grenades come in the form of explaining to kids Chelsea, 10, and Tanner, 6, why their dad - a tank driver with Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadian) Regiment stationed in former Yugoslavia - isn't there for birthdays and other big days.

 Little Tanner, a sweet child with a quick smile and impish wit, learned early on in life not to beg for a presence his dad can't provide. "He'll say, 'I wish you didn't have to go,' but there are no tears," Patricia says.

 Jacskon spent the last six months of 1997 on a UN posting in Drvar, Bosnia, leaving all the child-rearing to his wife.

 He wasn' there to break up squabbles, most common in the morning thanks to Tanner's pre-noon grumpiness. There were no runny roses to wipe, no dentist visits to steel the urchins for, none of the daily hassles of being a dad.

"Comforting" -- Mom Pat Jackson comforts her son Tanner when he misses his dad. -- Photo by Christine Vanzella
 Sadly, he also missed Tanner's grand entrance into school, a rite of passage that officially marks the boy's graduation out of early childhood.

 "It's like kindergarten, only longer," Tanner explained. Asked if he missed his dad, the boy replied: "Yeah. It's bad when he can't be here for the good things."

 A few days later, during an all-too-rare phone call from Bosnia, Tanner was itching to recount his adventures. But it was Chelsea's turn to be in the spotlight. She turned 10 - and her only fatherly bond was a two-minute phone call from thousands of kilometres away. It didn't matter; she'd already thanked him for a trio of Barbie dolls with a shout aimed towards Eastern Europe: "Thanks mom! And dad - a thousand miles away!"

 A three-week furlough didmuch to keep the home fires burning. So did a romantic soiree sans kids. It was a much better experience than the time in 1988, when Kevin, now 37, zipped back to the couple's former home in Calgary on New Year's Eve - only to find his 16-month-old daughter hospitalized with infected lymph nodes in her neck and his wife cooped up at her sister's.

 "I take charge because I have to," Patricia reasons. "I knew what I was getting into when I met Kevin. When I'm alone, I just try not to think about him too much. And when he's here (on a short visit) you try not to focus on that and say, 'Oh, God, he's going away. Again.' "

 Patricia wasn't going to let Kevin get away from the first time they met. It was in a Calgary honky-tonk called the Longhorn in November 1985, when she was on a date with some other guy and they bumped into the solo soldier, an acquaintance of her escort.

 "He was an awesome dancer. I got out on the floor and felt really, really stupid. He's half-black and, wow, can he dance ... But please, don't ask him to sing."

"Banner" -- Chelsea and Tanner make a welcome home banner for their dad. -- Photo by Christine Vanzella
 He liked her fiery red hair. She liked the corporal's charm. They hit it off famously. And quickly. Chelsea was born in the fall of 1987 and they were wed by a justice of the peace on June 19, 1989.

 Patricia and the kids were be waiting when his tour of duty ended. Not all troopers are so lucky. Lord Strathcona wives are no different than other military spouses; some have been known to greet their peacekeeping heroes with a change-of-address notice. Theirs.

 "That's a touchy subject. Sometimes, the wives go, 'Here's my chance to go.' You've got to be a very, very strong person to put up with military life. Some guys come home and take out (battlefield tensions) over here.

 "I do get bummed out when he misses all those special days, especially Christmas. It makes the holidays especially hard for me. I think he should be here.

 "But what can you do?"

 "Still, it's worth it. It really is, because I love my husband and agree with what he does for a living. I'm proud of him."