FORT MCCOY, Wisconsin - Military families have always faced challenges. None quite as demanding as a combat deployment. While combat is the Soldiers’ mission alone, deployment is a family endeavor.
Bryan and Rachelle Witherow have been married for 13 years and have three son’s ages six, ten and 12. Bryan is a U.S. Army Reserve staff sergeant who has been serving for eighteen years. Rachelle is a USAR sergeant and has been serving for four years. They are also both full-time Civilian Military Technicians with the 88th Regional Support Command on Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.
“Joining the military was something I had always wanted to do,” Rachelle said, “and I kind of let his career go first and then I finally got the opportunity.
“It was a tough decision to join the military while the children were small, but I also wanted my kids to realize that they needed to be able to follow their dreams no matter what.”
As challenging as it can be to balance two jobs, two military careers, three children, homework, sports practice and monthly battle assemblies, this family has now accepted the opportunity and responsibility of serving their nation overseas.
While Sgt. Rachelle Witherow will be going overseas in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel as an ammunition sergeant with the 395th Ordnance Company out of Appleton, Wis., later this year, her entire family faces the challenge of deployment.
“I figured at some point I would deploy. I came into a training unit to start with so it wasn’t really an immediate concern,” Rachelle pointed out. “But getting promoted into an actual line company, as soon as those orders hit it was ‘alright, this is possibly go time,’ it can happen at any point now.”
Although this will be the first deployment for the Witherow family, military service has been a part of their lives from the beginning. Bryan was already a member of the Army Reserve when he and Rachelle married and their boys have grown up with military service, yearly training and monthly battle assemblies as part of their daily lives.
“I was at my annual training in March and we had a soldier fall off so they needed another NCO to step up. So I stepped up right then. It was another two weeks before I was back home with my family to talk about the deployment.
“It was almost easier to accept the news because I was in a military environment, in uniform, in a military state of mind during that period of time. Making the phone call and letting my husband know, I mean, that wasn’t easy, but we kind of had a feeling that it was coming.”
Bryan has concerns about Rachelle’s deployment, but he explained why being in the Army Reserve himself has helped him understand the process.
“I think it’s difficult as a husband knowing that your wife is going over,” Bryan said, “but being a soldier and going through some of the same stuff myself, I get it. So I think it makes it easier on me as a spouse.
So like some of the challenges and the questions and the worries a spouse might have that’s not in the military - a lot of those you already know the answer to so it’s not as taxing on me emotionally. You know what’s designed and what’s in place to keep your Soldier safe.”
Despite the concerns they both have, Rachelle said that, for now, her excitement has overruled her fear.
“It’s hard to say it. There’s a part of me that’s excited,” Rachelle admitted. “I mean this is something we’ve trained up to do. This is what we signed up to do. To go and do what the Army needs us to do. As a Soldier, I’m excited to have the opportunity to lead other Soldiers and have this opportunity. I’m not going to lie, I’m a little scared. It’s the unknown. I’ve never been there before, so,” Rachelle trailed off.
When asked how she handles the transitions between being mom and Soldier, Rachelle responded quickly, comparing it to flipping a switch back and forth. She also explained how being a mom helps her in uniform.
“It’s a totally different ballgame,” Rachelle stated. “You put the uniform on, you leave the house to go do even just a battle assembly weekend and you got your game face on. At the same time, I’ve got younger soldiers under me and it’s almost like being mom all over again.
“As an NCO, being a mom helps, I have a little more patience. I feel protective of the junior Soldiers. To know that I can make a difference in their lives just like I can with my kids because they are younger and still learning. The youngest Soldier deploying with me is 19.”
Rachelle went on to explain how despite the challenges their family will face and the distance that will separate them, her children are prepared - and proud.
“Missing birthdays and stuff like that has been harder, especially for my older son. This will be my third time missing his birthday since I joined the Army,” Rachelle said. “But for the most part they are proud of it.
“We have our countdowns that we do and everything. They are pretty resilient. They seem to get through it pretty easy. Just keep them on schedule.”
Rachelle shared her children’s ideas of what Reserve service entails and questions they have asked.
“They’re boys, so they ask things like ‘are you going to go play with guns this weekend?” Rachelle said. “I think being around it their entire lives with their dad being in the service, it’s just a way of life for them.”
“I think it’s cool and all,” their oldest son said. “But since she’s going to be deployed, I’m going to miss her because it’s going to be a long time that she’s going to be gone and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen there.
“I’ll keep in touch with mom by letter,” her middle son added, “maybe by FaceTime like at night before I go to bed or right away in the morning or maybe if mom has her phone and is able to text.
“For now, I try my best to help her out around the house,” he said. “I’ll have to help my dad keep an eye on my brothers while mom’s gone. Make sure that stuff is all ok.”
Their youngest son offered up his opinion of mom and dad’s uniforms.
“Mom is awesome in her uniform,” their youngest son said grinning, “and my dad is pretty cool because he has a new uniform.”
More seriously, he added, “Soldiers shoot, they protect us from the enemy soldiers.”
Then he asked his mom a tough question.
“Are they trying to kill you guys?” he asked.
Rachelle answered, “Depends on how bad they are.”
Rachelle paused and sat quietly with her youngest son on her lap for a few minutes before continuing.
“I think Bryan’s main concern is just making sure that the kids are taken care of, being there for them as much as possible,” she said.
“He has training to attend right after I leave so his mom is coming to stay with the boys for a few weeks and going to stay and help out for the holidays. We have a few closer friends here but we are not from this area so we have to kind of find those people you can really trust especially in this type of situation.
“It actually makes us stronger. We have had to lean on each other and not on the rest of the world to hold us up,” she said. “We have had to hold each other up. We have been away from home for almost 9 years now. Knowing where we were then versus where we are now, knowing what we can do that we never thought we would be able to, you know, because we’ve had to just do it.”
Their oldest son spoke up again and said, “I think it’s kind of emotional because I’ve never gone through this part before, the overseas part. But I’m also used to it because dad has always had to leave for military stuff, too.”
“One of the biggest things,” Bryan added, “is that we are proud of her. Proud of what’s she’s doing.”