For the last three years Kat Lanigan's father has missed her birthday — sometimes not even calling to wish her well on the important day. The reason he doesn't call is not that he doesn't care, but somestime he just can't make it to the phone.
As a member of the U.S. Army reserves, Maj. Kevin Lanigan has been deployed overseas three times since 2001 — each time over Kat's birthday.
"You can't just talk to him whenever you want or do something with him whenever you want," said Kat, 15, about her father's deployment. "Just knowing that he's in a place that can be so dangerous, that's worrisome."
As a member of the reserves, it was not unusual for Kat's father to be gone once a month, said Tricia Johnson, Kat's mother and Lanigan's wife. But, once he was deployed to Bosnia in 2001 for eight months, the family had to adjust to more than just a weekend absence.
"To have their dad deployed was really unsettling for them, I think, in a lot of ways," said Johnson about the impact on Kat and her other daughter, Clare, 13.
Johnson also felt that impact.
"We lived in Herndon and I didn't have people in my life who were military," said the Oak Hill resident. "It is a very isolating experience."
Contrary to active duty officers whose families live near or on military bases, reserve unit officers and their families can be anywhere in the United States, said Johnson. This means when spouses are called into duty, their families are left without the same support systems that active military spouses receive. Active Army families are set up with a Family Readiness Group, said Johnson. These groups help families deal with a spouse's departure by offering support systems with other families in the military community.
As a civilian resident, Johnson and her family did not have this community support. In fact, a number of people did not know or understand why her husband was serving in Bosnia for eight months, Afghanistan for 10 months and now Iraq for one year.
TO RELIEVE THE LONELINESS, stress and other frustrations that resulted from her husband's deployment, Johnson created a virtual site where she could connect not only with her husband, but also other spouses of deployed officers. Created in 2001, the Reston-based non-profit organization, Salute Our Services, Inc., is run by a team of military spouses who live in the Herndon area. Along with offering support systems, the organization provides mentors for spouses experiencing their first deployment.
Mirrored off of the Army's Family Readiness Groups, Johnson's organization also offers information on community efforts across the country geared toward assisting military families.
"I created the internet group so I could share experiences with other families," she said. "We share everything from our problems like car troubles to our children's activities."
The virtual site allows reserve families from the same deployment groups to feel connected, even if they are thousands of miles apart, said Johnson. And the deployed spouses can participate in the discussions, so they too are connected.
"Even if you're not hearing from your own spouse regularly," said Johnson, "you're hearing from other spouses on this page, so it gives you an idea of what they're doing."
Since she created the organization four years ago, the Army has followed her lead and piloted the internet family readiness sites for its active military members. Currently there are 649 families waiting to get into the Army's program, she said.
Political leaders have also supported Johnson's organization, including U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) and U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), to provide funding for its programs. Because reserve families span the country, Johnson has made sure the organization does too.
"There are so many people out there that are trying to do things to help," said Cynthy Soucie, director of administration. "We have volunteer coordination across the country to help out so we can link together groups with families."
AFTER CREATING Salute Our Services, or SOS, to deal with the stress of becoming a single mother — or "Suddenly Military" — Johnson realized her children also needed support.
With the help of Kat and Clare, who were 10 and 9 respectively when Lanigan was first deployed, Johnson created Kids Serve Too. Focusing on the children of deployed soldiers, this organization works with school systems and the community to help outsiders to the military understand the stress placed on children.
One way the organization has helped is by creating an educators guide, said Paige Dillon, family program coordinator for SOS. The mother of four boys — ages 10, 7, 4 and 2 — Dillon said her husband's first deployment was an eye-opening experience for the whole family.
"These children are not used to their parents being away," said the former Herndon resident.
The educator's guide touches on everything from being aware of changes in a child's behavior to teaching the class about the region where a parent is deployed, said Dillon.
When her husband returned after serving for almost a year and-a-half in Afghanistan, he went to his children's school to show them what he did while he was deployed. A Loudoun County Public Schools teacher, Dillon's husband built houses and schools for children in Afghanistan.
"He showed them that it's not all about fighting," she said.
To benefit the children, the board — which includes honorary children board members — has created events to bring military children together.
"My girls, for the first time, saw kids in our area who's parents were deployed at the same time that we never knew existed," said Johnson about a recent community event for only military families.
Kids Serve Too also provides financial grants to allow military children the opportunity to maintain their extracurricular activities during deployments. Because reserve soldiers have civilian jobs — in Johnson's case her husband is an attorney — when they are called into duty their income significantly decreases.
FOR KAT, who worries about family expenses and taking household responsibilities off of her mother, staying busy has helped her pass the time while her father is away.
A volleyball player since third grade, she recently celebrated with her Chantilly Youth Association select volleyball team when they won the championship title. Although her father was not there to celebrate with her in person, she had her teammates and Johnson — who acts as coach.
And even though her friends may not understand what she is going through, talking to them and a school counselor about her father's deployment has helped her deal with the stress.
"It's not easy at all knowing that a loved one is over in such a dangerous place," she said. "Anything anyone can do at all, even if they just listen or talk to us, that really helps."