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Master Warrant Officer Paul Watkins at home in Courtney, B.C., with his children, from left, Danny, 15, Kyle, 14, and Chelsea, 17. MWO Watkins’s oldest son, Scott, is currently in military training in Quebec. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)
Master Warrant Officer Paul Watkins at home in Courtney, B.C., with his children, from left, Danny, 15, Kyle, 14, and Chelsea, 17. MWO Watkins’s oldest son, Scott, is currently in military training in Quebec. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)

On military families: ‘If you stay together…, you become a lot stronger than you normally would’ Add to ...

Despite the upheaval of her childhood, Chelsea says she also saw the positives of military life: the service to your country, the adventure, the ability to provide for your family. She is planning to enlist when she graduates. Her eldest brother, Scott, left for basic training in Quebec this week.

Through all the confounding logistics, the shift-juggling and the moments of isolation, Paul insists, “it does grow your family bond. If you stay together and help yourself, you become a lot stronger than you normally would.”

- Erin Anderssen

‘It’s the life I have chosen’

That night before Peggy Murphy was leaving for her deployment to Afghanistan, she lay in bed with her then seven-year-old daughter, Ashley, who was trying to stay awake all night. “She said, ‘if I fall asleep, I know when I open my eyes, you will be gone,’ ” recalls Sergeant Murphy, a single mother of two, who was deployed for 10 months to Kandahar in 2007 as a resource management clerk.

Her son, Christopher, a year older, was more stoic, masking his worry in jokes about how he was going to dodge homework while mom was away. But Ashley took her mom’s departure into a war zone hard. That Christmas, while Sgt. Murphy was home on leave between training and deployment, she pulled her mom aside and started to sob. “I don’t want you to die,” she said, “I am so afraid you are going to be killed.” Don’t worry, her mom told her, “I just take care of the good guys who fight the bad guys.” That conversation, Sgt. Murphy says, “was the hardest part of my whole trip to Afghanistan.”

Sgt. Murphy isn’t a complainer – she is quick to clarify that she joined the military because it was her dream career, not because she needed a secure job. Of course, she didn’t expect to be juggling long absences without a partner, relying instead on her 60-year-old dad, Kenneth, a retired fish-plant worker in Newfoundland, to travel halfway across the country at a moment’s notice when she has to be away for weeks at a time. “It’s the life I have chosen,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t come without its share of hardships. But if I’ve got it crappy in one department, someone else has always got it worse.”

When she learned she was being deployed to Afghanistan, it was the realization of her military ambitions. But, including training, she would be gone for nearly a year and a half. She decided to send her two children back to Paradise, Nfld., a town next to St. John’s, so they could live among family.

On the base in Kandahar, Sgt. Murphy’s job involved finding the emergency notification for a lost soldier so a padre could break the news to his family. “Those are the days when you think about your family at home and how much they must be worrying and you feel guilty.” At least, living off short, crackling phone calls home and regular Web chats, she knew her children were safe. Says her father, in a voice thick with pride, “I used to tell her, ‘keep your head about you.’ But I guess she knows that anyway.”

Even with a strong support network, worry leaves a shadow. Not long after Sgt. Murphy returned home, Ashley’s teacher phoned to say her normally outgoing daughter was crying over minor mishaps and refusing to participate in group activities. Sgt. Murphy took her to counselling. Ashley had trouble letting go of the “what-ifs”: What if her mom hadn’t come home? What if she’d been injured? “I had to promise the kids I wouldn’t go away for three years,” Sgt. Murphy says. “It’s a promise you can’t always keep, but I got lucky.”

Today, the Murphys live in the small community of Masson-Angers, Que.; Sgt. Murphy is posted to the Canadian Forces Language School in Gatineau. One night while she was working late, her son, Christopher, left the bathtub faucet running and didn’t notice until water dripped down through the kitchen ceiling light. Sgt. Murphy arrived home to four neighbours mopping her floor. “I don’t know what it is about the uniform, but my luck has been that my community is always ready to help.”

Eventually, she will be posted again – handling the logistics of finding a new house, a good school, and a doctor for the children. She knows it will get harder now that her kids are teenagers, and no longer “at the age when they don’t care whose Play-Doh they eat.” But the family is resilient, she says. Laughter helps. “Now when I am on them about their homework, they’ll say to me, ‘Mom, don’t you have a tour to go or something?’ ”

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