Capturing your happiness and emotions in a form you can share

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A Glimpse into the Lives of our Military Families. Guest Blogger #5 Leigh

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I am once again honored to bring you a guest blog from an amazing military family.  They contacted me about photographing their homecoming, and when I heard their story I knew that they were the perfect family for my “pay it forward” free session. They have been through so very much and are not only still standing, but stronger because of it.  I am honored that I was able to capture their homecoming through Operation Love (www.oplove.org) and give them a much needed family session.  If you haven’t already, make sure you watch this video that tells a little of what they recently went through right before the recent deployment.

 

And now, in her own words, here’s Leigh with a glimpse into the lives of another strong military family.

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“Life as a military family is by no means a separate existence from that of our civilian counterparts—the natural highs and lows of life map our family journey the same as any other. Successes and defeats, wins and losses, great times and troubled times—experiences all families share. The military family, however, travels this journey along a different path, and when both parents are in the military, there is an added layer of complexity to managing the day-to-day operations of a household, especially with no extended family down the street or in the next town. Our children will never know their grandparents like their cousins who live a short drive away from “grandma and papa” or “mamaw and grandfather”, and it is rather unfortunate that for the overwhelming majority of their lives, a 2500 mile trip once a year across the country is the extent of their relationship with them. On good years, they see them twice a year. It is for this reason that we are grateful for some pretty special surrogate grandparents in the local area who willingly assumed the title of “Aunt” and “Uncle” and who have been an integral part of our lives. Forging new relationships with each change in address is part of the package deal we bought into when we signed on the dotted line some 20+ years ago.

As we prepare for a summer reassignment and look forward to a new community and a new group of local friends, we will miss those who we grew close to over the past seven years, “homesteading” in Washington. I used “homesteading” lightly since our time here has been punctuated by several overseas deployments. While they are just part of our job, there is the emotional burden caused by these long-term physical separations of great distance that is simply heart wrenching at times. These ‘business trips’ out of town are measured in months not days. We did not simply miss a parent teacher conference but rather the entire school year; we did not miss single soccer games or baseball games—instead we heard our children talk about their games weekly because we missed the entire season. On the longest trips, we missed the entire annual calendar of important events—every birthday, the first day of school, our anniversary, the World Series, the final soccer game, Christmas morning, and the last day of school. For our family, this happened in triplicate. You try to stay involved in the kid’s lives through phone calls, Skype, and letters home.

The best way I found to be “present” was to head down to the airfield each week and select a book to read, turn on the video camera, and read the book, ignoring the noisy jets and trying to be animated for the camera. In truth, it was sterile, but it was the best I could offer to be “present”. Maybe I did it to assuage my own guilt about leaving my children. It is noteworthy that despite their young ages, missing events was not lost on them, and when I would call, it never got easier to hear their disappointment because I was not available for them. Perhaps it would be easier “the next time”, because in a post 9/11 world, there is often a next time. Absolutely not. My husband will say that multiple deployments in no way inoculate you from the palpable sadness heard across the phone line because you’re not there to console them, read them stories, open presents together, throw the baseball, or play Yahtzee on a Friday night. It is tough. Period.

Beyond the emotional angst of separation, there is another burden of these deployments, and one that is not often discussed openly—the tremendous professional risk associated with these trips. In the vernacular of the military family, professional risk has nothing to do with profit margins, and personal sacrifice can mean the darkest of tragedies. It is hard to explain to people who have not “been there” without them thinking you’re out of your mind. My heart would sink anytime there was an unexpected knock on the door and there were times when the worry for my husband’s safety was momentarily paralyzing. There was nothing worse than not hearing from him for several days and noticing different cars parked on our street or the street perpendicular to ours. Is it a government car? Did I get the Google alert in my email about “Afghanistan attack”? Was he traveling today? In that precise moment when your mind is reeling, it is inconceivable that he is so busy that he simply has not had a moment to come up for air to call or write. Invariably this was the case and a sigh of relief overcomes you when you receive a call from “BLOCKED”. No, there is no desensitization for this with repeated episodes; I often wonder if it actually heightens sensitivity.

The worst part of every deployment is leaving after saying the final goodbye—whether you are the one leaving or the one staying home. On the drive home from the last departure, a cacophony of wailing ensued—not crying, but wailing—before we began to make our way home. I should be used to this because it happens every time. What can you do? The kids have every right to cry—we chose this lifestyle, they did not. They are smart kids and they can do the math—there are three of them and one of us. There are going to be shortcuts and shortchanges along the way, and in ways that their friends simply cannot relate to. Vying for attention suddenly becomes uber-competitive. As the wailing abated on the drive home last May, our 9-year-old son mustered enough self-control to tell me that he was going to be the man of the house. All the stoicism I displayed in the morning was gone in an instant.

The first few weeks are always tough with a new deployment as we establish the new battle rhythm in a vaguely familiar, always dreaded, “geosingle” parent status. Another period of “new normal”. Most nights the kids would crawl into our king sized bed, and I would not protest. This was their way of feeling secure. Before my husband left, we realized that the difference between this deployment and the others was that the kids were old enough to understand the gravity of the circumstances overseas—they understood the professional risk. They watched the news. They asked questions. When I would tell the kids, “I have some news” or “We have to talk”, the first thing out of their mouths was concern for their dad. “Is dad okay?” I learned to preface discussions with, “Dad is fine…”. One more “new normal”.

This deployment covered all but one birthday and all of the major holidays, and halfway into it, I was completely depleted. Thinking of the joy in the eventual reunion was, ironically, overshadowed by the fatigue and exhaustion of being “on” all the time. It was just a matter of getting through the deployment. Hang on for just a little bit longer. Invariably, the ship turns—the excitement and anticipation of redeployment sets in and joy settles over the home once we could identify a specific redeployment date. A few weeks before my husband returned from Afghanistan this past February, the kids and I would hear the song “Happy” on the radio and it became our mantra. We would crazy dance around the kitchen island to this wonderful song or the kids would be very creative with their backseat dancing when it came on when we were in the car.

Around this time, I saw so many powerful pictures of soldiers deploying and redeploying that I wanted to capture that exact moment of seeing our hero return home after nine long months. I was grateful that Shauna was available and simply rolled with the arrival time that turned into a moving target in the final 48 hours. Because of the work she does for OpLove, I do not have to try to remember that night. I take one look at her pictures and remember vividly the details that would become sketchier with time.

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A sweet homecoming at 4:30 am

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Indeed, the emotional departures and subsequent reunions of loved ones felt by any and every family are heightened for military families. Emotions run understandably higher as the metrics of a lengthy separation add up. Long after the wars have slipped away from daily news coverage and talk around the water cooler, the photos that capture those separations and reunions remain. They represent the most raw and vivid moments in a military family’s journey—the low point and high point that mark our way through the years of service. The still photograph that captures a couple departing, with both fully understanding that this is perhaps the last embrace on this earth, is equaled only by the still of a returning father meeting and holding his infant daughter for the first time while clutching his wife and son. Emotional events for any family, but tremendously heightened for us. These pictures become our press clippings—the evidence and reminder that we have faced incredibly difficult days and the treasure of being fortunate enough to experience the tremendous joy of reunion. In these cases, the picture is not worth a thousand words—their worth cannot be measured in volume of the written word. Rather, the moment is captured only by a photograph and by our hearts, for which there is no substitution.”

I was blessed to be able to capture some family photos for Leigh and her clan before they moved across country.  After the emotional homecoming ones, it was so nice to be able to take photos of them being a family with all the different personalities that entails.

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Why should you support small business?

It seems like you see more about supporting small businesses a lot more during the holiday season with days like “Small Business Saturday” to try to counter Black Friday and other huge shopping days.  Last year around this time I started posting links to small businesses that I love, or that are run by friends and family, and this year I will be doing the same.  As a small business owner myself, I understand the importance of supporting them more than most, and I would love to be able to help others see why it is so much better to buy locally and small than to support large multi million dollar corporations.  Don’t get me wrong, I will be getting some of my Christmas presents at places like Costco or Trader Joes, but I try to do the majority of my shopping from small businesses, or I put together creative gifts of my own. It can mean that things might cost a little more, but knowing that I am putting food on the table for a family, or helping them to buy gifts for their kids is a great feeling.

Here’s something to think about when you book with me.

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I might be a little more expensive than getting your photos done at Wal-Mart or JC Penneys, but by supporting me you are supporting a local small business.  This means you are supporting a person, not a multi-million dollar business that doesn’t need your money.  You are allowing me to pay my bills, provide a roof over my head, and buy more equipment for my business.    By purchasing my sessions and prints you are also supporting someone who gives back in as many ways as I can.  Not only do I give 10% to charities during the holidays, but I also volunteer with Operation Love ReUnited (www.oplove.org) providing amazing photos for military families who otherwise might not be able to afford to have those moments captured.

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I have also given several gift certificates to silent auctions for places like Jubilee Women’s center, (http://jwcenter.org/) and I give away a couple sessions a year for those who can’t afford to get professional family photos.   I was raised to always give back in any way I could. We didn’t have much money growing up, but we had enough, and we were never lacking.  My parents always found ways to give back to those who needed it, and taught my brother and I to do the same.  Every Christmas we would take our allowance or babysitting money and use it to buy food items for the food bank.  We would also choose a toy off the giving tree that we would purchase with pride knowing that it would make another little kid smile.  It is a tradition I plan on carrying on when I have kids of my own.  It is the reason that I give back to military families and others through my photography, knowing what a difference it makes.  It is why I spent countless hours helping with the calendar for HB Carepackages, knowing that the money made will put smiles on the faces of many of our deployed soldiers.  It’s the reason that this year, just like last year I plan on giving 10% of all my net sales to charity.  (www.hbcarepackages.com and http://melodiccaringproject.org/ ) Make sure you check out these charities and perhaps even sign up to sponsor a package of your own.  It would be a great thing to do with your kids.

When you book with me, you also get my personal attention, to me you are a client who matters, and I will treat you as such.  You are not a number, or just one more client bringing their baby in for holiday photos in the big name studio I am working in.  I pride myself in being able to capture your family at your best, and give you an emotional portrait you are proud to share and hang on your wall.  More than a photo, I strive to give you a piece of art that will make you smile each time you look at it remembering the fun day we had during our shoot.  You are an individual who is helping me realize my dream and helping me to make a living doing something that I am passionate about and absolutely love.  I appreciate and love each and every one of my clients, and I appreciate that to many of them, my session fee (although less than many) is still an investment, money that could have been used in other ways, but instead is being given to me so that I can provide beautiful photos for you to cherish and pass down through the generations.  It is not a responsibility I take lightly.

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Deciding to take the step towards being a small business owner was easier for me than many since I was raised in a small business household.  My dad was a beekeeper when I was growing up, and we sold our honey, candles and wine at high-end art shows, as well as our own store in Moscow, ID.  The holiday season meant going to lots of shows with them where I would help sell their products, as well as sell my little entrepreneurial items of my own like wreaths, earrings and dream catchers.  I loved going to these shows with my parents, it was an exciting atmosphere, and I enjoyed being able to find cool hand crafted gifts for my family.  I would sneak off from our booth with one of my handmade items and approach the other artist about trading.  Most of the time they had trouble resisting the adorable little blonde girl, and I would leave their table beaming, knowing I had just gotten a beautiful hand-made item that my mom, dad or brother would love opening on Christmas day.  It was always so much fun to see the smile these items brought, and to be able to share the story of how I was able to get it without them noticing.  I really can’t imagine having that same joy and excitement for an item purchased at Wal-Mart.  Plus the items are unique, and mean a lot more (especially photos) than any random item you can buy at the department store.

Here are the pages for some of my favorite small businesses.  They all make unique items, and again, by purchasing from them you are supporting a family instead of a corporation.  When your loved ones open the gifts on Christmas morning with a smile on their faces, you can take pride in knowing you found them a unique gift that they will cherish, all while supporting a family run business and helping to brighten their family’s Christmas as well.

Axiom 8 Designs: Hand drawn, custom art that can be used on t-shirts, decals, car parts and more. (Also happens to be my brother!)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Axiom8Designs

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Life Force Red Bell Pepper Sauce: A delicious SWEET red bell pepper sauce that makes an awesome gift for the foodies in your life.  Tastes amazing with egg rolls, crab cakes, fish, with cream cheese as a dip and more! (Created and made by my amazing parents.)    Can be shipped anywhere in the world.                                                                                                                                                                          Facebook page:    https://www.facebook.com/LlifeforceRoastedRedBellPepperSauce?fref=pb&hc_location=profile_browser           Website:  http://www.lifeforce-specialty-foods.com/

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Tammy’s Boutique for Kids: Hand made headbands, hair ribbons, tutus, shirts and more for you little one.  Great for special occasions, photo shoots, or just because you have a cute kid and want them to look even cuter!                                                                              Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/tammysboutiqueforkids

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Maedeanies Beanies: Beautiful hand crocheted beanies of all types, from animals to sports themed.  Can be custom made for whatever you are looking for.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MaedeaniesBeanies

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Neverland Cakes and Creations: Cakes that are delicious and beautiful for any occasion, Neverland is owned by a fantastic single mom of three and is based out of Kirkland, WA.                                                                                                                                                                 Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/NeverlandCakesNCreations

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Lil Boricua’s Bakery: Another bakery with delicious and beautiful products, owned by a military family and based out of the south end.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lil-Boricuas-Bakery/160499427307641

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Essence Salon: A great small salon located in mid Seattle, they offer hair cuts, coloring, sugaring and more, with all natural products.  Essence also offers hair and makeup for weddings or other big days                                                                                                                 Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Essence-a-chic-coiffure/72681406561

Please go check out these small businesses and give their page a like.  Browse through their items and see if you can find something unique and amazing to give to your favorite people.  And remember, gift certificates make a great gift for those hard to buy people in your life!

Stronger-Guest blogger Jenn

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At the beginning of the year there were a lot of “pay it forward” ideas circulating in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.  One post I that I saw mentioned how blessed one of the families felt that they had just gotten family photos, and therefore had wonderful memories captured in photos that would last forever even though they lost someone they loved.  The post also talked about a photographer who had decided to give away a free session to a deserving family as a way to pay it forward.  It struck a note with me, since I am always emphasizing how very important it is to get family photos to preserve memories, and capture the emotions and love between the members of those families.  Also, it may seem morbid, but you really do never know what might happen in life, and when you might lose someone precious to you.  A couple of years ago, I took a Christmas photo of my sister in law’s family, and it ended up being the last photo of them all together before her brother died.  That simple photo ended up meaning the world to everyone in my family, and I was so grateful I took it.

So, back to the “pay it forward” post.  I loved the idea and asked my clients and friends to nominate a family they felt was “worthy” and would appreciate some amazing photos.  I had a couple of nominations, but the one that really stuck out was from my friend Dee.  She suggested the Rumble family.  Since I am involved in Thunderbird hockey, I had heard of them, and followed their story through my friends’ facebook pages.  This is a family who had gone through a lot, and made the best of it, helping  a lot of other people in the process.  I was thrilled when they agreed to do the photos, and after juggling several busy schedules, we made them happen on a beautiful sunny day this summer.  So let me stop talking and give Jenn a chance to tell a little bit of their story in her own voice.

“Let me preface this blog by stating that our lives have always been crazy. In fact, we refer to our own family as “a circus.” Although born Canadian, my husband and I quickly landed in the US where he played professional hockey. Move one landed us in Pennsylvania where our first son was born. A switch from a professional athlete to a hockey coach, over 40 moves in 3 countries and 4 kids later, we arrived in Seattle. At this point, our two oldest were off on their own playing hockey, so the only ones becoming West Coasters were the two of us and our two youngest kids, who were 6 and 11 at the time. We became quickly acclimated to this amazing climate after surviving in mounds of snow for most of our lives.

Everything seemed fantastic. Too fantastic. Isn’t that a sign to start worrying? You know how you often become complacent and you take for granted the health of your children? Well, this is when everything came to a crashing halt. A halt of monumental proportions. A halt I pray I never have to experience again. I mean, how often does a doctor prescribe you an antibiotic and then before you even reach the pharmacy, call you and ask if you are sitting down? This is the day that the “halt” completely took residence in our lives. This is the day we found out our oldest son was sick.

Within seconds, our lives had totally transitioned. We were now living out of suitcases at Seattle Children’s, awaiting a diagnosis. Leukemia.  The tough one. You hope for the “simpler” leukemia. (how can those 2 words even be in the same sentence?) Surgery right away to place a line in his chest in order for the toxins, I mean chemo, to enter his body directly by the heart. Oh, but first within hours of diagnosis, a quick field trip to UW to leave a sperm sample. Seriously? See what I meant by “halt”? This “tough” kind of leukemia means that you do not leave the hospital. At all. Some lucky ones get to go home for a day or two between rounds of chemo, but this chemo is SO ridiculously toxic that it absolutely obliterates your immune system unlike any other, making even a paper cut fatal.

Round one ended with a reminder of just how amazing my son is. He gathered all his young “teammates” and orchestrated a video. A video that has gained huge recognition. A “cancer anthem”, so to speak  that has drawn in an audience of almost 3.5 million viewers!  

Not only did it deliver so much awareness to pediatric cancers, it brought a sense of fun, happiness, camaraderie and a general feeling of normalcy to the children on the floor. Every one of those kids is incredible. The families are remarkable. The doctors are phenomenal. Those kids are fighting, with every ounce of their being. They look that horrendous beast head on and do all they can do to conquer it. Behind the walls of the pediatric oncology floor shines a light much brighter than the brightest star.  These kids have the strongest will to live and their determination sets them apart from any other child I have ever known. I am in awe of these children. I am in awe of my son. I am so proud to be his mother. He has taught me more than I will ever know. He has been through much more than most people will face in a lifetime. And honestly, who really knows what a lifetime is?

We thank you Shauna. More than you will ever know. Your selflessness is an incredible gift. The fact that one year following treatment, we were still able to take a family picture is a gift I will never forget. I will never take for granted the health of any of my children. I treasure each and every day with each and every one of them. Life is a gift. A completely remarkable treasure. Thank you Shauna for allowing us this opportunity to instill memories. Memories we never really knew would be possible

Jenn”

Thank you Jenn for sharing your story, and allowing me to spend the day with your fantastic, chaotic family.  I feel honored to be able to capture the strength and laughter that is your family.
See all the photos from this session at  http://kruseimagesandphotography.smugmug.com/Photography/Family-Portraits/R-Family-Seattle-Family/30707290_LzzrSL#!i=2653648199&k=zxDnSxc

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Everyone has a Battle.

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A little while ago I got a message from a friend of mine. It was a story of how my photography with Operation Love has helped her work through things that have happened in her own life.  As I read the message I had tears running down my face.  I knew that she  had fallen in love with a military man, had two adorable kids, and then moved somewhere with those two kids without that man.  Although I knew her and followed her on Facebook, I didn’t feel like it was my place to pry and ask what had happened, and I have been content to watch the antics of her two beautiful boys and see that she is doing a great job of raising them.  I will admit that I was always curious, but again, felt it wasn’t my place to inquire.  When I asked if I could share the story without her name, she immediately said yes, and I am excited to be able to share it with you all.  I hope that it reminds you that everyone is fighting some sort of battle in their life.  It could be a small one, or it could be a large one.  It could be them struggling to feel happy for others when all they feel is their pain.  It could be them feeling insecure about themselves, their weight or their ability to be successful, or it could be them fighting their loneliness and heartbreak from losing someone they love or being betrayed by them.  As I am making my way through life, I am finding that it is often the strongest ones who are fighting the biggest battles.  That person or friend who you think has it all together, or who gives so much of themselves to others that you think they couldn’t possibly have a problem.  But they may be using their strength to cover up a hard childhood, or problems in their marriage or families, or to cover up their fears that they aren’t where they think they should be in life and may never make it there.  So take a moment to listen  or offer an encouraging word.  Give them the chance to share their problems without judging, or just be there next to them if they don’t want to share.  Go through life always giving, always being kind, you never really know when your action or something you do might make a huge difference in another person’s life, and touch them in a way that makes everything a little easier to bear.

I am so grateful that this story was shared with me, otherwise I never would have known that I made a difference in her life just by doing something that I am passionate about and absolutely love.  Please read, take a moment to think about who might need your support, silent or otherwise, and pay it forward.

” I meant to write this a while ago but I got busy and distracted. I wanted to say how much of an absolutely amazing and wonderful thing it is that you do with Operation Love, and I loved watching you on TV, I think you did amazing. Your OpLove project has affected me and helped me in ways you could not imagine. You may have seen bits and pieces of my story on facebook  but you never have heard the whole story to know why OpLove has affected me so much.

As you may have seen I was married to a guy in the Air Force. We moved to Florida  a few months after getting married since he got stationed there, and found out a few weeks after that I was pregnant with my first son. A few days before his 1st birthday and about a week before we found out the gender of the child in my second pregnancy, my husband was deployed. He was supposed to come back a couple weeks before my due date.

We had been having some troubles with the marriage but I thought we were working on them and that things were progressing.

When he got home they had an Operation Homecoming which later became the biggest turning point of my life. The local newspaper was there, as they always were, and took a whole bunch of pictures, many of which remind me of low quality versions of yours. There was a picture of a very pregnant me standing next to him while he hoisted our son, who was 17 months old, into the air. This picture made it into the papers…. where it was seen by his girlfriend of a year and a half.

That picture was the catalyst that brought to light the fact that he had been cheating on me for half our marriage and our son’s entire lifetime and it was later revealed that there were at least 5 others.

2 weeks later my second son was born and 2 weeks after that he made it very clear he had zero interest in trying to fix things, even for the kids’ sake. I told him I was moving across the country  to stay with my mother and I was taking the boys and he simply said “ok”. When our 2nd son was 4 weeks old the three of us moved here.

I absolutely loved being a military wife. There were always people around who knew what you were going through, always such a sense of community with support for everything and I met some of the best and strongest people you could ever imagine. I had been in the mindset that I would be living that life for 20 years and had embraced it. So when I started to see your OpLove posts at first they tore me to shreds. They reminded me of my photo and what it meant. They reminded me how unexcited  he was to see me after being gone for months. It reminded me of all the lies and pain and fronts that were put in place and all the sacrifices I had to make in order to make the right decisions for my boys and their eventual happiness and well being.

But I also had so many friends and knew so many good people who were enlisted, and in the end I could not hate them all  for what one person had done. Your photos helped remind me of the happiness I should feel for my friends. They helped me gain more confidence in my decision and to know that it was the right one because the emotions he felt at his Operation Homecoming were so different than those in your photos. They helped me differentiate between my husband and the military in general.

I can now again be so grateful for what they do for their country and I know more than most the toll it takes on the person deployed and the family left behind. It has helped me celebrate and commiserate with my friends in a way I was too scared to and unable to before.

It is hard to talk about all of these things again and I will admit that I am tearing up a bit while typing it all but I thought you deserve to know yet again how very much what you are doing touches people’s lives. Having photos of a reunion like that posted on the wall would make the next deployment so much more bearable because you would have a daily reminder of the elation you will feel again soon, that it is all worth it and that they are worth it. Every person’s story in the military is very different, but no one who has had a military experience could deny being in awe of what you do, and feel the need to express more gratitude than is humanly possible. You truly are an amazing person with an incredible gift and you are changing the world by sharing it.”

Thank you my friend for sharing such a personal story and reminding me that what I do in life does make a difference in other’s lives, even if it isn’t always obvious.  So please, if you read this, take a moment to be kind every day.  Take a moment to reach out to that person who might need it. You really never know when you might make a huge difference.

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A Glimpse into the Lives of our Military Families. Guest Blogger #4 Chris

When I had the idea to have some of Operation Love (OpLove) clients write guest blogs on here, I was stoked at the response.  Several of my clients responded saying they would love to write about their experiences dealing with deployments and their experience with me, their OpLove photographer.  My hope with these guest blogs is to help others who might be going through deployments of their own, whether it is their first or tenth, by reminding them that they are not alone in what they are dealing with, and perhaps even helping them deal with any issues that they might be having while their loved one is away in a dangerous place.  If we even help one person with these blogs then we have been successful.  I would also like to give the general public a view into what our military families go through and the sacrifices they make.  So many people have no idea, I know I didn’t before I got involved with OpLove.  By putting a more human face on our military I am hoping that there will be more compassion and respect for the men and women who live their life every day working for our government with little to no rewards, just because they believe in what they do.

So please welcome Chris my fourth guest blogger. Her love story is one made for the movies, and since I am apparently a big sap, I once again had tears running down my face reading it, so make sure you have tissues handy and don’t read at work!  Thanks for sharing your family’s story Chris!

I like to joke that I’m a professional dependent.  But a military lifestyle is the only one I’ve ever known.  I’ve been in DEERS all but one year of my life.  My dad was in the Navy for a few years and eventually retired from the Air National Guard.  My mom was in the Marines, but separated to start a family.  And I’m married to an Air Force fighter pilot. 

 

Before anyone goes jumping to conclusions, my husband and I don’t have one of those typical “Top Gun” or “An Officer and a Gentleman” romance stories.  In my opinion, our story is better than anything Hollywood could write.  You see, I didn’t marry a military man….  I married the boy across the street. 

 

I met the boy who would be my permanent partner in crime when I was 7 years old.  We grew up together playing football, basketball, and home run derby at the park up the street.  He tutored me in math, I helped him write his papers or work on his Spanish homework.  He was the guy that all my boyfriends liked to hate.  I know he had a few girlfriends in that boat too.  We were the best of friends – nothing more nothing less.

 

Eventually, we both went off to college. We had chosen schools in different towns but were only an hour away from each other and still were in touch. In 1999 and as college graduation loomed, he casually mentioned that he was going to go take the AFOQT, the entrance test for the Air Force.  My heart started pounding… what does he mean he was going to go in the Air Force?!?  He was supposed to be right by me for the rest of my life, like he always had.  I figured out real quick why none of my relationships ever worked out – somewhere along the line, I had fallen in love with my friend.  Luckily for me, he felt the same. 

 

He joined the Air Force in April 2000; later that year, we were married. 

 

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Graduation from OTS, July 2000

 

Like a lot of Americans, our lives changed drastically on September 11, 2001.  We knew the type of military career that would be in front of us once he finished pilot training. 

 

His first deployment was in February 2003 in support of OIF.  But rather than flying his airplane like we assumed he would, he was on the ground supporting the air strikes. 

 

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First Homecoming, May 2003

 

Our older daughter was born in August 2004.  Four months later, he deployed to Afghanistan. 

 

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Second Homecoming, May 2005

 

We moved to Texas in early 2006 and, later that year, had our younger daughter.  In 2009, we moved to South Korea and finally, in October 2011, we moved to JBLM, WA. 

 

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Our Family, October 2011

 

PCSing here (a fancy military term for move), we knew that a deployment was in our immediate future.  And we knew this one was going to be different.  This time, he was going to be gone longer and we had two children.  But we worked as a family to prepare for the deployment.  To get ready we talked, we learned, we loved, we questioned, and most importantly we prayed.  We engaged our church, our daughter’s school, our neighbors, our friends, and our family.

 

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Daddy-Daughter Dance, October 2012

 

He left for his third deployment early November 2012.  Skype was a luxury that we only got every few weeks if we were lucky as the internet was usually too slow to support the feed.  But Facebook chat kept us going strong.  The girls being older helped too – they were able to write to him, to read what he wrote them, and to send him funny notes and drawings. 

 

One foot in front of the other, checking the days off, we kept the family going strong.  I say we because it was a collective effort.  There were days that I just wanted to roll over, throw up my hands in the air and say “I quit. MERCY!!!!”  But this life doesn’t happen in a bubble.  I had more than my fair share of support.  Sometimes it would come in the form of my girls stepping their game up and folding a load of laundry, or it would be a quick hug from a friend or co-worker.  However the support came, it was there and it was constant. 

 

The girls and I kept busy during the deployment.  We planned trips, outings, and activities to keep us moving.  I ran two half marathons and finished my Master’s Degree; the girls had Girl Scouts, AWANAs, gymnastics, and baseball.  We went to Florida (twice) and Texas. We had dinner parties with friends and watched a ton of musicals and other fun girly movies. Before we knew it, July had come. 

 

A girlfriend of mine reminded me of Operation Love Reunited.  She was planning to use Shauna Kruse for her own homecoming a week before ours.  I looked her up and we were fortunate that Shauna was available to shoot our homecoming as well.  She met up with us as we were having a snack and waiting for him to come up the escalator from customs.

 

After 270 days, 9 hours, and 15 minutes (but who’s counting?) of waiting for him to come home, he did just that and stepped off the elevator at SeaTAC.  My breath was absolutely taken away when I saw him standing in front of me.  Or maybe I was finally taking a deep breath for the first time since he left.  Not a picture on the computer.  Not a white screen with instant messaging dialog on it.  No.  It was my husband, my babies’ daddy, my favorite partner in crime – and he was standing right there hugging my girls.  It took every bit of grit and determination to not fall to pieces.

 

The “first kiss.”

So happy to see Daddy

I don’t know what I would have done if Shauna hadn’t been there to capture those moments for us.  Because of her, we have a beautiful album of our reunion to share with our family who couldn’t be here.  You can feel the excitement and emotion in the moments she photographed.  To say that I am thankful for her and for Operation Love Reunited would be a gross understatement of my feelings.  To have someone volunteer their time to you is an amazing gift.  And one that I will always remember… 

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Shauna, thank you for taking care of our family photos.  Like the photographers who took my other two homecoming pictures, you will always be a part of the Oliver family history. 

Thank you Chris for sharing your story.  I love hearing the love story behind your strong family, and I appreciate you allowing me to be part of such an amazing moment.  Chris actually does some blogging herself, and she shared her “Day Zero” (http://randcoliver.blogspot.com/2012/11/day-zero.html )  post that she wrote the day her husband left, as well as her blog from day 75. (http://randcoliver.blogspot.com/2012/11/day-zero.html )  I highly recommend reading both, as they give insight into what goes on at home during a deployment, and really show how strong she is.  I enjoy the way she writes, and might have to follow the blog for this sweet family.

I am so very happy that I found Operation Love, and I will continue to volunteer with the organization as long as it is around.  I will NEVER charge a military family to photograph their homecoming with their loved ones.  It is the least I can do to give back to families who sacrifice so very much for our country.  If you need to find an OpLove photographer in your area, or if you are a photographer interested in giving back, please go to http://www.oplove.org for more information.  Thanks for reading, please feel free to share this blog, you never know who might need to read it.  Look for another guest blogger coming soon!

A Glimpse into the Lives of our Military Families Guest Blogger #3 Michelle

When I had the idea to have some of Operation Love (OpLove) clients write guest blogs on here, I was stoked at the response.  Several of my clients responded saying they would love to write about their experiences dealing with deployments and their experience with me, their OpLove photographer.  My hope with these guest blogs is to help others who might be going through deployments of their own, whether it is their first or tenth, by reminding them that they are not alone in what they are dealing with, and perhaps even helping them deal with any issues that they might be having while their loved one is away in a dangerous place.  If we even help one person with these blogs then we have been successful.  I would also like to give the general public a view into what our military families go through and the sacrifices they make.  So many people have no idea, I know I didn’t before I got involved with OpLove.  By putting a more human face on our military I am hoping that there will be more compassion and respect for the men and women who live their life every day working for our government with little to no rewards, just because they believe in what they do.

So please welcome Michelle, my third guest blogger. I am so appreciative of Michelle volunteering to share her story since it is a bit different from the others I have shared already as she is the soldier who had to leave her little ones behind for so many months.   I had tears running down my face reading this, so make sure you have tissues handy and perhaps you shouldn’t read it in public.  Thank you Michelle for sharing your story with us!

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“My story is a little different than the others expressed on here; I am the Soldier in this family.  Our entire family story has been rooted in military experiences since Kevin and I met as a blind date for a military ball.  After eight years of marriage, we are still being “voluntold” to attend those same balls.

I learned six months before my deployment that I would be leaving.  That gave adequate amounts of time to prepare and ample amounts of time to just wish I could leave tomorrow so that I could be home with them again.  Kevin and I spent much of our time talking about how we would smoothly transition the boys, ages three and a half and thirteen months at the time of my departure, into a world where Mom was gone.

Those months before I left seemed like a surreal time.  Special trips were planned and extra time was spent to do favorite things with each boy.  We went to the zoo, the park, and just played at the house.  Who cared if dirty dishes were in the sink?  Those can be done later; I only had so much time available to be with them.  We made cookies or cakes most weekends because my little guys loved wearing their “wrappers” (aprons) to help in the kitchen.  Bedtimes were missed to watch an extra movie with Mom.  My youngest even got his entire bookshelf read to him one night as he was stalling for bed just to spend a little more time cuddling.

Kevin did infinite hours of research on-line to find activities and tips to help the boys.  Together, we developed an arsenal of resources to make sure the boys could remotely understand what was happening.  Each had a book that explained how my life overseas was similar to theirs (Over There: Mommy version distributed through Military One Source).  They had stuffed animals we made together with my voice inside saying, “I love you.  I miss you.  I’ll see you soon.”  As time got closer to the deployment, my oldest and I created a paper chain to go around the bedrooms of the upstairs counting down each day until I would return (plus 30 to be safe).

Kevin found Operation Love: Reunited (www.oplove.org) in the post’s newsletter.  The first photographer we contacted did not have enough time for pre-deployment pictures because it was the holiday season.  Our request was posted on the organization’s website, and Shauna contacted us.  She was never too busy to find time for something like this, which was fantastic!  The pictures were great, and offered us a chance to have a new photograph for each boy to have in their room as a way to say goodnight to their Soldier while I was down range.  My oldest would refer to his as his “kissing picture” often because he would give me a kiss every night when he said his goodnights after reading his book, taking a link off the chain, and telling me goodnight through the moon.

Hats off to Mama! OpLove Pre-deployment photos.

OpLove Pre-deployment photos

OpLove Pre-deployment photos

OpLove Pre-deployment photos

OpLove Pre-deployment photos

The moment to say goodbye was one of the hardest moments I have ever experienced.  Nothing truly prepares you for that time.  My husband and I thought the youngest would have the hardest time with the separation as he was permanently attached to my hip and would not share.  Hours after saying goodnight that last night, I could hear my oldest playing his stuffed dog, “Justin… Mommy loves you… Mommy misses you… I’ll see you soon.”  The next morning seemed to drag by.  Everyone could feel the tension of the inevitable.  A coworker of mine had given me four unique little rubber duckies dressed in military uniform.  They were to serve as a connection to each other when we were out and about.  We each placed one in our pockets as we went to the airport. We arrived at the airport and were trying to stay as a family, but the waterworks would not wait and a Soldier crying attracts a lot of attention.  We chose to say goodbye outside of security as my boys had previously flown and would not understand that this was a trip they could not go with me.  Tearfully, I blew a final kiss to my boys and I had to put my game face on to walk to the terminal.

I do not know how many times I heard, “Wow!  I bet it’s harder for a Mom to deploy!” from the men I was speaking to.  I would not know, as I cannot experience both sides of the relationship.  I do know that talking about our children was different between the fathers and mothers I talked to.  Talking about our children bonded mothers together throughout deployment.  When asking that question, the first things to be pulled out of pockets and displayed on phones or iPods were the pictures of our kids.  We shared our little objects given to us by our children (someone’s Zhuzhu pet, another had a flat cloth bear, another had a superman key chain, and of course my rubber ducky) and then take pictures together showing the adventures of those items, especially when they met other children’s favorite items.  Rubber ducky was even pictured on the front of a military fire truck, which was an exciting item for my boys.

My boys’ smiling faces (the big one and my two small ones) would greet me each morning from the wall of my tent.  They would be there when I said good night as well.  Shauna sent me a book of all the photos we took pre-deployment about half way through my six months. It was a great time to open that around my Soldiers and show them my boys!  They had seen their pictures as they came through, but it was a great moment to show the true family, not the family missing one.  The pictures were so important since my area of the country had communication problems.  Throughout my entire process, I was only able to Skype with my family three times, and two of those had no sound while I watched them play.  I was lucky if I got to call home once a week, and even luckier if the phone call was completed in its entirety, instead of broken midsentence.  The days were long, but the weeks were short.  Deployment was much like Bill Murray’s appearance in Ground Hog’s Day.  If you weren’t careful, you would go all day before realizing that it was Wednesday, or even that it was someone’s birthday or Mother’s Day.  At least, we were 12 hours ahead, so I could always call just as that day was beginning.

Redeployment was an ever changing process.  I was held until my replacement could arrive and release me from my current position.  As the time approached, communication changed to planning, things like a getaway weekend for my husband and me as we missed our anniversary due to this deployment.  That last 30 days are the hardest as it is so close you could almost taste it, but still it looms out of your reach.   I was grateful for those extra links on the chain, because at one point, it looked as if I would be telling my husband to add a few more (like enough to reach a full nine months). 

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Ducky on Michelle’s duffel bags ready to go home!

When I was finally able to leave, it was a whirlwind of excitement with 9 flights and multiple hours of ground travel totaling 41 hours in motion and 5 different countries just to place my feet back on US soil.  I couldn’t share how I was coming home until I had made it out of the country, so my husband got little updates as I reached each of the other locations. Adrenaline and excitement drove me through each process and I barely slept until 24 hours after reaching home.  At 4:30 am PST, I called my husband to say I made it to Georgia, and I would let him know when I would arrive home.  Little did I know that I would be in Seattle around midnight (and my poor husband had only a five hour notice as he hurriedly attempted to clean the house).  That final flight was the hardest to sit through.  I was so close to seeing my husband and kids.  I couldn’t concentrate on anything for too long, and sleep would not come as I was still 12 time zones ahead.  Knowing my excitement to get off the plane, I switched my seat for something closer to the front as I checked in for the flight.  My husband said that the boys were awake from the moment they got in the car throughout that entire time of travel until we arrived back home around 3am the next morning.  I was barely out of the gate when my oldest ran to come give me a hug.  He was all smiles and all too eager to help with me my bags. My youngest grabbed a hold of my uniform shirt and would not let go when I got off that plane.  I wondered if he was going to sleep with it that night.  Even with very little notice, Shauna came to that late night reunion and grabbed some of the most amazing photos of one of the happiest times in our family, especially that first hug from my little guys after six months longing to hold them in my arms again.

In Mommy’s arms again after too many months.

Almost here….

Mom’s plane is finally here.

Surprising Mom at the gate. He couldn’t wait to get that first hug.

Not letting go of Mom’s shirt

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Make sure you go check out Michelle’s blog post about having to wait just that little bit longer to see her family.  It definitely pulls at the heart strings.  http://momsdeployment.blogspot.com/

Thank you Michelle for sharing your story.  It is a reminder that there are moms as well as dads out there missing their kids so that we can be safe here at home.  I love hearing that my photos made a difference and helped not only you get through the deployment, but helped your boys as well.  This homecoming was the first one where I had also done the pre-deployment photos, making it all that much more special being able to see the family reunited.

I am so very happy that I found Operation Love, and I will continue to volunteer with the organization as long as it is around.  I will NEVER charge a military family to photograph their homecoming with their loved ones.  It is the least I can do to give back to families who sacrifice so very much for our country.  If you need to find an OpLove photographer in your area, or if you are a photographer interested in giving back, please go to http://www.oplove.org for more information.  Thanks for reading, please feel free to share this blog, you never know who might need to read it.  Look for another guest blogger coming soon!

Follow your own path

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I think one of the hardest things to do in life is to shut out that extra “noise” that is always present and learn what to keep and what to filter from all of the advice we are given on a daily basis. It’s something I have been trying to figure out my whole life and am still working on today, both in my business and personal life.  I am realizing recently that I am letting those outside forces influence me too much, especially in my personal life, affecting how I feel in certain situations, and how I interact with myself and others.  Days like today I wish I could clear everything else out of my head and just trust my heart, my instinct, and my gut feeling.

How do you find that line between taking advice from those you trust and love, and learning from other’s experience, and balance it with your own experience, what you feel, and what you know deep down to be true.  Only I really know my own strength. (which I sometimes underestimate)  Only I know my own heart and experience in each situation I find myself in.  Take my business for example.  When I left my job three years ago, the logical step in most people’s minds would have been to go out and get another full time job.  To make sure there was financial security and to follow the “normal” path.  Instead, with the encouragement of my family, and the knowledge that they supported me in anything I chose to do, I decided to go out on my own and start my own photography business.  It was my passion, I had been told I was good at it, and I was tired of working ridiculous hours and being stressed out all the time so I could make money for someone else and be told it wasn’t good enough.  When I told people that I was going to start my own business, I can’t even tell you how many of them said, “ooh that’s scary!” or “you’re so brave to do that.” or even “that’s a really competitive field, are you sure you want to do that?”  Now let’s pause here.  I realize that most of these people did not mean to try and discourage me, that none of them said what they said to be mean or discouraging (and probably were just reflecting their own fears onto me) but it was still said, and if I had a couple of dollars for all of the times I heard these phrases and more, (and still hear them) I wouldn’t have to worry about finances.

Now take a moment to imagine if I had listened to these naysayers, gone out and gotten a full time job without giving a second thought to my passion and dream to become a photographer.  Sure, I might now have more money and less debt.  I might have more stuff and less stress in some ways, but I would have missed out on this incredible journey I’ve been on for the last three years.  I wouldn’t know the feeling of accomplishment I get when I look at my photography today knowing just how far it has come.  I wouldn’t know the feeling of joy I get every time I pick up my camera to capture another happy, emotional moment for a family who trusts me to do just that.  I never would have found Operation Love (www.oplove.org) and wouldn’t have known how absolutely amazing it feels to give back to military families by providing images that capture the incredible emotion, love and energy that comes when they see their loved ones after months apart.  (for that matter I would have missed out on meeting a lot of amazing, strong people who I now call my friends)

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 If I had listened to all that extra “noise” when I decided to start my own business, I wouldn’t have been able to affect other’s lives with my photography.  I wouldn’t have the ability and means to affect so many lives by pressing a shutter button at just the right moment in order to catch that photo that makes people cry happy tears when they see it.  I wouldn’t have the ability to give people the same emotion and feelings when they look at my work that was present when I took that photo.

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It is a gift that I am able to give to so many people and I am so very thankful to be able to give that gift.  So thankful that I didn’t listen to all those telling me that I shouldn’t go outside of the box, that it was “scary.”  So thankful that I followed my heart and passion, trusted my strength and talent, as well as the strength of my family behind me, and I took that step into the unknown.  My life would be very different if I hadn’t, and I truly believe that this is meant to be.  I still have those moments of self doubt, when those “gremlins” creep in and tell me that I am not good enough, or that I should be more successful than I am, etc, etc, etc.  But all I have to do is look at my work, look at the lives I have touched with my photography and forge forward knowing that I am a success, more than I ever could have imagined, even if my bank account doesn’t reflect it.  Some days, like today, it takes many sets of stairs accompanied by positive mantras and followed by a quiet corner on the beach listening to the water lap the shore.  Whatever it takes to quiet those gremlins and shut out the extra noise and opinions.

So I will try to take the same route with my personal life.  Tune out the extraneous voices, the “this is what I would do if it were me,” or the “this is what should have happened by now,” or the ” I couldn’t do that if I were in the same situation,” and I am going to listen to my gut, follow my heart, and trust my logic.  Take the strong advice and thoughts from my friends and family and filter them, storing them, using them to make me stronger, knowing that it all comes from a place of love.

Only I know what I need to do for myself, for my business, and for my future.  Only I can make these decisions, knowing that I am doing what is best for me right now, even if it isn’t the “normal” decision, and knowing that it isn’t what most people would do.  But then again, I’m not “most people.”

Sometimes we just have to take a leap of faith knowing that one way or another we will come out okay, and even stronger on the other side.

Trust in the Universe

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