By MELODY JAMESON
APOLLO BEACH – “That’s not the way Daddy would have done it,” Casey Smith informed her mother at supper this week.
Mandy Smith was not irritated that her youngest criticized the pork chop meal she had prepared. She understood the 17-year-old deeply misses her Dad, USAF Master Sgt. Mark Smith (ret.). After all, so does she. So does big sister, Courtney, 20.
He’s been gone less than two weeks. Shipped out May 16 to Iraq. And his absence leaves a very large hole in the fabric of the close-knit little family here.
“Mark would have grilled those chops, tossed a fresh salad, cooked mash potatoes from scratch,” Mandy allowed, recounting the supper incident. “He does a lot,” she added with a certain wistfulness, her voice trailing off, leaving unsaid the many ways, large and small, this husband and father demonstrates his devotion.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They’d planned it differently. This most definitely was not the circumstance the four of them had envisioned. As America observes Memorial Day next week, commemorating the lives of her men and women who went to war but did not return, they know not all casualties are buried.
Mark Smith, a son of Ohio, enlisted at the age of 19. It was something of a natural, he indicated earlier this month as he discussed the difficult situation he’d come to, powerless to change it. It started with the role models, several male members of the family who had served honorably. He figured to follow in their footsteps.
And, he did. For 21 years, 21 days. He did basic in Texas. In its wisdom, the military decided to make a fuels specialist out of him. He and Mandy married. Then it was off to Illinois for technical training. Together, they made a number of duty stations – Oklahoma, North Dakota, Japan, the Azores. Along the way, they made their family, first Courtney, then Casey.
He was racking up promotions in rank. The first Gulf War opened and Smith, now a well trained, highly experienced non-com with specialized knowledge in air craft fuels, storage and fueling, was ordered to a Saudi base. He did assignments in Turkey. He was gaining more useful experience, managing other personnel. Distant but safe, his three girls waited. The air force would not incur the same risks for spouses and children, they could not join him.
Then came MacDill, back together again, the greater Tampa Bay area at their doorstep. He was rolling up on 20 years. Time to re-assess. He’d accumulated a wealth of technical knowledge and real life experience. They’d traveled, seen a lot of the world. The girls deserved a real home, their own house. Sinking roots would be welcome. They weighed life after the air force. It was decided, he’d take retirement at his present grade.
Surely, still young and able-bodied, he also would find work utilizing his long list of skills. Computer savvy, he knows fuel lab testing, bulk fuel strategies and distribution, accounting and inventory, environmental compliance and fuel handling regulations. He can whip out a comprehensive report when required. He’s capable in staff and task management.
In January, he began a concentrated job search. He mailed resumes by the dozens, searched the internet for openings, networked. It all came to nothing, he said. Florida’s high unemployment rate took its toll.
Redoubling efforts, he began looking for a position in other states. If necessary, maybe he could commute or the family could relocate, perhaps to Oklahoma or Texas. Still nothing.
In April, with no hope of U.S. employment on the horizon, the Smiths reached an agonizing tipping point. There was one option left: a tour in a war zone with a contractor vending its services to the Pentagon. Mark Smith, an unabashed family man who asserts firmly that his first obligation above all else is supporting his wife and children, did what he says he had to do. It’s a one-year commitment, with a 10-day break out-of-country after four months.
Neither he nor Mandy want to talk about which contractor. They also don’t want to pinpoint where in Iraq his assignment as a fuels foreman is located. Is there danger? Yes, he allowed before departure. Car bombs, mortar fire, camouflaged explosive devices go with the territory. “But I’ve accepted the risk,” he added. He’s been promised “no convoys” where vehicles become highly visible and vulnerable on open desert and is supposed to be billeted within an U.S. military compound. He takes comfort, he said, “from being with my military family.” Besides, it’s 12-hour days, seven days a week.
Meanwhile, Mandy, Courtney and Casey are working at keeping life on as even a keel as possible. Casey is in high school, aiming to become a veterinarian, and Courtney is planning to enroll at HCC, enroute to a career as a pediatrician, Mandy said this week, They cherish the memory of a three-day weekend together on St. Pete Beach just before Mark’s departure date and a surprise party at Ruskin’s VFW Post 6287 where he was saluted by the only female VFW honor guard in Florida, They presented him a Certificate of Recognition from Sen. Ronda Storms.
They’ll email and talk by telephone when possible. They’ll pack love packages for him, sending gummy bears and chocolate chip cookies and the peanuts he especially likes. They’ll make cards for him and forward pictures of them doing their thing here as they wait…and plan…and pray.
And, they’ll count the days ‘til Christmas. They hope that a 10-day “furlough” in Germany can be arranged, allowing them to rendezvous there together for the holiday, Mandy added.
After that? “I take it one day at a time,” Mandy said, “and try to look at the big picture, the end result.” Embodied in that outlook is the conviction that he’ll come home from one last hazardous assignment, providing the financial rewards of the risk that will allow them an ease that couldn’t be found in the first retirement.
And Dad will preside over chops on the grill once again.
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson