During the final days of the Gulf War, I took our three-year-old son, Daniel, his two-year-old brother, Philip, and our infant daughter, Bethany, to watch their father launch his Phantom F-4. He was going to the Middle East. His mission: to fight for our nation’s freedom.

“When will de Papa be back home, Mama?” asked Daniel as he waved his chubby hand at the roaring jet.

“Soon,” I said, as I fought back tears and kissed my baby daughter on her fuzzy blond head. “We are praying he will come home soon.”

Philip was excited; he loved watching airplanes: “I wuv you, Papa!” he shouted as he jumped up and down. Then all of a sudden he turned to me, furrowed his brow, and said very seriously, “You know, I weally wuv de Papa.” Then he turned to wave at the small speck in the sky, as his dad flew off to his mission.

As a military family who currently has five school-aged children and two adult children, we have a keen appreciation for what it takes to keep this nation free. We’ve lived through two wars, and we know that my husband, Lt. Col. Bob Kay, will likely be called upon again to fly and fight in order to protect our nation’s freedoms. The kids and I are the veterans on the home front.

Some have called military families the “hidden heroes at home,” but most of us would not accept such a distinction. After all, we don’t wear the uniform; we haven’t sworn to offer our life’s blood to defend our nation, and we don’t eat MRE rations in some faraway place. We merely support those who do.

And yet if Bob knows that when he returns from his mission he will have a loving family waiting for him, he is better equipped to perform at the height of his capabilities. When he believes that his family will have people in the community who will assist them through the uncertain weeks and months ahead, he rests a little better when he contemplates the stars in a darkened sky half a world away. And in many ways, these families, as well as their communities, have contributed to our national defense, as have all the supportive families of other airmen, sailors, and soldiers.

I have always disliked the distinction “the little woman,” who stays at home, wringing her hands, waiting for her husband to come back. Military spouses tend to be proactive, courageous, and every now and then a little goofy (in a patriotic kind of way). There are plenty of things we can do ahead of time to prepare effectively for those long and short separations. While we can’t be sure the kids won’t get sick or the washer won’t break down, we can do some preventative maintenance in order to help things run smoothly while our heart anxiously awaits the return of our loved one.

There are some basic things military families can do to be more prepared for the various aspects this lifestyle presents. While some of the things listed here seem pretty basic, others, such as relationship issues, are not as evident. And yet these other aspects of our lives have a great impact on how we are able to cope with the moves, the separations, and the financial constraints. Here’s a general overview of your adventure as a military family.

Network of Military SupportPlug into your unit’s individual family support group; if not actively, then at least in a casual way. You don’t have to head a fund-raiser committee or be the driving force in this group, but attend a few coffees or activities. You will need this group when your spouse deploys — for information disbursement as well as support.

Network of Non-Military Support When families live on base, their children attend the base school, and they go to the base chapel. They can easily become “base cadets.” We need to broaden our scope of influence and our children’s through developing relationships with non-military friends. We need a break from military-speak, and these friends can provide that bit of touch with reality. Consider joining groups off base or go to a civilian church to make sure you have friends who will keep you balanced.

Legal Limitations If your spouse is deployed for three months or more, you will need to check with your installation’s legal department and get your wills in order and a power of attorney. Make sure that your name is on your checking and savings accounts and that your name is also on the title to your vehicles and your home. These simple precautions can save you major financial and legal problems.

Budget Binges If you don’t have a budget, get one right away! Be sure you know about the finances in your home and that you have the power of attorney to handle all the financial decisions that could arise when your spouse is deployed. You might also want to budget for “Fun Funds” to be used when your spouse deploys. This would cover those binges such as extra eating out, going to the movies or a theme park, or even buying a new outfit. If these are funded, they won’t be a liability to your budget.

Learn It, Don’t Burn It! I’ve heard of more than one person who burned up a car engine because they didn’t change the oil! During sustained deployments, your local Family Support Center equivalent often has programs to help you maintain your vehicle. In the meantime learn the basics of car maintenance (or where and when to take it to have this service done) and home maintenance. You are quite capable of simple home repair if you decide you’re going to learn how to do it. The key is to learn to be flexible.

Scheduled Play Have a plan for some rest and relaxation before your spouse deploys. Interview baby-sitters, find a reliable friend you can swap kids with, look over the course schedules offered by the local community college or civic center, or join a choir or an aerobics class. But it’s critically important to have scheduled play times for YOU while your spouse is away. If it’s not immoral or illegal, build it into your schedule. This will keep you from frantically scrambling at the last minute, when you’re at your wit’s end, looking for someone to watch the kids or trying to find a break that is yours alone to enjoy.

Mend Fences If you or your spouse has “unfinished business” with each other or with extended family members, peace time is THE time to get these issues worked out. It may be hard and may even require the assistance of a counselor or base chaplain, but it is vitally important that you make every effort to mend these fences. If you’ve at least tried, you can have a clear conscience that you have done your part. Encourage your spouse to do the same with his/her extended family members.

Don’t Burn Bridges Remember the classic saying “What goes around comes around?” Well, it’s true! One of the cadets that used to work for Bob, and who kind of had a few run-ins with him over parking tickets, found himself face-to-face with his old air officer commander when the young pilot graduated from pilot training and went to fighter lead-in school. The truth is no matter what walk of life you’re in, you never know when the tables might be turned, and a past acquaintance is in a position to either help you or hurt you. So it’s a good idea when you run into “difficult” people to just walk away — don’t get even. You might end up living near them at some point, or worse, your son might marry their daughter!

Chuck Swindoll, best-selling author of about a gazillion books, once said, “Words can never adequately convey the incredible impact of our attitude toward life. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond to it” (Strengthening Your Grip, Word Publishing, 1983). This is true for all military families, and it is never truer than when your spouse is gone. There are a lot of tips in this article, and even if you learned just a few things, it could make all the difference in the next deployment — because the next one will come, and? It will never be convenient timing. It will never be short enough. It will never be over until your spouse separates or retires from the military.

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I don’t want to end this article on a negative note. So let’s put some perspective on the topic?

Even though the timing isn’t perfect, you can make the most of the time. Even though it’s part of military life, you will likely miss some aspects about the lifestyle when you’re through.

The most important thing to remember, as much as we joke about “serving your country in Hawaii,” is that there is genuine and abiding purpose in the service member’s going. It’s a much bigger perspective than we can imagine, because?

If it weren’t for their mission, we wouldn’t have freedom. If it weren’t for the tears of farewell, we’d never shed tears of a safe homecoming. If it weren’t for your sacrifice at home, we wouldn’t have America as we now know it.

Perspective makes all the difference.

Top Ten Qualities of a Hidden Hero

Sense of humor An ability to laugh at oneself and with each other.

Flexibility What it’s called when you create an elaborate candlelit dinner and farm out the kids for the night, and you husband calls to say he’s not coming home because they have an inspection coming up.

Courageous The ability to wave good-bye for the two-hundredth time, fight back the tears, smile, and say, “You come home safely; I’m proud of you!”

Extraordinary An ability to move fifteen thousand pounds of household goods in twenty-four hours.

Strong Nerves of steel (for all those close calls and near misses)

Patriotic Unashamed to shed a tear during the presentation of the colors or the singing of the national anthem.

Faith-Full Brimming over with faith in God and true to your country.

Independent Confident during solo parenting gigs, but ready to move to interdependence when the spouse comes back home

Acronym Reader The ability to decode three-letter acronyms (TDY, PCS, UOD, MRE, OIC, SOF, BDU, SOL, etc.).

Superhero The capability to conquer new lands, stay in touch with old friends, keep the home fires burning, jump buildings in a single bound, and stay out of the funny farm.

Copyright © 2003 Ellie Kay. Used with permission from the author.

Ellie Kay, Best selling, award winning author of “Heroes at Home — Hope and Help for American Military Families.”