Love during war time

How a Chico family—newly wed and with newborns—faced deployment

Randy and Samantha Eitel with twins Mason and Madison.

Randy and Samantha Eitel with twins Mason and Madison.

Photo By Ken Smith

As Samantha Eitel puts it, 2010 was a “surreal, crazy, emotional rollercoaster” of a time for her and her then-new husband, Sgt. Randy Eitel, an active National Guardsman.

Shortly after their wedding early that year, the couple discovered they were expecting twins. At the time of their marriage, Randy, who specializes in horizontal engineering (which roughly translates to heavy construction, in civilian terminology) and is part of the Chico-based 649th Engineer Company, was training for deployment. Though they’d discussed children and planned to have them after his overseas duties were done, they didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.

“I was lucky I even got to see them born, to hold them and get to know them, or at least as well as you can get to know a newborn baby,” he recalled. “Her due date was actually after I would be gone, but because of medical issues involved with having twins they did an emergency C-section.”

Two days later, Randy had to say goodbye to Samantha and the newborns—Madison and Mason—and head to Afghanistan.

Randy Eitel was deployed for most of the twins’ first year, returning only on a brief mid-tour leave in March of 2011. It was a rare opportunity to hold his 5-month-old daughter.

Photo courtesy of Eitel family

“Deploying was was really hard, being a new father,” he recalled. “Every time I called home I was getting updated on all the developments they have that first year. However, thinking about it, nobody ever really remembers their first year, so maybe in one sense that was good, because they probably won’t really remember when I was gone.”

There is good logic behind Randy’s thinking. America’s deployed soldiers leave an estimated 1.5 million children home annually in recent years, and the effects of deployment on children are sometimes compared to those of divorce.

According to a number of articles on the issue—some at official military websites—the children of deployed soldiers grapple with abandonment issues and elevated stress levels that can negatively impact everything from academic performance to behavior and psychological development. Even infants can show signs of distress—such as increased crying and irritability—but are likely less effected than older children.

Things were also not easy for Samantha back home: “Everything was so new, having just been married and having kids,” she said. “All this stuff was happening at once, and it was the first time for everything.

“I was so naïve when we first met; I didn’t get the huge scope of what the military does,” she said. “I’d never had to worry about anyone going into a real dangerous place before. It was scary.”

He kept the leave a surprise to his wife, Samantha, who was overcome with emotion.

Photo courtesy of Eitel family

Randy was no stranger to deployment, but the circumstances of his trip to Afghanistan were different from anything in his previous experience. Prior to joining the National Guard in 2008, he’d been in the Navy and spent some time in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He is approaching a decade of accumulated military service; the couple met while they both were working at a local grocery store in 2008, during his brief stint back in civilian life.

“When I left the first time all I was saying goodbye to was an old truck and my Xbox,” he recalled. “Other than my parents, I didn’t really have anyone at home. Then I had the kids, and it was a whole different story. My wife needed me to come back. There was a big emotional difference.”

How did this affect his experience overseas?

“I guess I was a lot more cautious, and a lot less tolerant of threats, than I would typically be,” he said.

Unlike his Iraq tour, where he was far from danger, he was stationed much closer to combat in Afghanistan’s violence-ridden Paktika Province, where his division’s engineering missions included building roads, outposts for the Afghani army, and protective barriers around schools in dangerous areas.

Sgt. Eitel (left) and a buddy on duty in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province.

Photo courtesy of Eitel family

“We were never really close to where the main action was, but we were in range of artillery strikes,” he said. “For the most part that’s where we were at, but there were definitely times when the bullets were flying and all that. At those times, whether you’re a father or not, you do what you do and you complete the mission.”

The couple said their greatest comfort during his deployment was being able to communicate often through Skype, the Internet and an Afghani cellphone Randy purchased (“Service was pretty spotty; there aren’t a lot of cellphone towers around,” he said). Though they sometimes didn’t speak by phone for up to two months, Samantha said she was comforted by semi-regular emails and Facebook messages.

Randy kept the hairier, more dangerous details of his deployment to himself so as not to worry his wife: “As far as she was concerned at the time, I was over there handing out balloons or something,” he joked.

The Eitels mentioned there is a command-sponsored organization of family members, volunteers, soldiers and civilians to assist the families of deployed servicemen and -women. It’s called the Family Readiness Group, and its services include emotional to financial support. Samantha said she took some comfort relating to other military spouses she knows, but also had to keep some distance to avoid the constant reminder that her husband was away in a war zone.

Randy returned after 11 months and doesn’t think he will see another deployment (“But it’s always just one political decision away,” he noted). He is active full time, working 40 or more hours a week at the Chico National Guard Armory, where his wife and twins—who turn 3 in October—are regular visitors.

Samantha teared up as she remembered greeting her husband when his unit returned: “Everyone said, ‘You’re going to be so overwhelmed, you’d better let me hold the kids,’ and I was like, ‘No, I’ll be OK.’

“But as soon as I saw him I said, ‘Please take them.’ I had to run up and hug him and have him back in my arms as soon as I saw him.”