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Family, deployment and COVID-19 – a lesson in resilience

  • Published
  • By Aryn Lockhart
  • 17th Training Wing Public Affairs

COVID-19 changed the way the Air Force is doing business. New measures, precautions and innovative learning ensured the mission continues, but Airmen weren't the only ones who made adjustments—families did too. 

Through deployments and extended permanent change of stations, it was families who kept moving and navigating the isolation brought on by COVID-19 without their spouses and parents.

2nd Lt. Nathan Neal, 315th Training Squadron intelligence instructor, deployed for a 365 day assignment August 2019, separating him from his wife and seven children for a year.

Nathan and his wife, Kim Neal, grew their family of seven after having three children of their own and adopting four from foster care. The children range in age from 8 to 17.

Deployments and extended separations are always challenging for families, but this time as the days ticked down, they faced a new set of hurdles. March came and COVID-19 changed daily routines. School came to a screaming halt and spring break became summer break.

The Neal family were not rookies to extended separations or deployments; Nathan is prior enlisted and they lived the military life for the past 12 years, but this was unchartered territory. This was their longest separation and they did not have family nearby to help.

“COVID made normal activities difficult without a second adult in the house,” said Kim. “We didn’t only lose our school routine, but we also lost our physical village. We had several friends who were still calling and checking on us, but our ability to babysit for one another was put on hold.”  

Every little task became more challenging with seven children at home and one adult to manage the crew, and it didn’t always go smoothly. Leaving the house was more difficult as she left her teenagers in charge to run errands periodically.

“You always worry about what will happen when you leave your kids alone, even if they are teenagers,” explained Kim. “During one of my shopping trips, my 8-year-old landed wrong on the trampoline and broke his jaw. My older kiddos did a fantastic job managing that emergency until I made it home, but it was stressful and made me feel guilty for not being there when he needed me.”

In the face of these challenges, the Neal family found tremendous resilience in building their village. They created routines despite the pandemic and responsibly found ways to socialize.  

“Our biggest success was creating our village. The people in our community are amazing. We live in an older house, and I had several neighbors come over to help me make repairs throughout the year,” said Kim. “The idea of going through this separation without our family was terrifying, so creating this village was a major win. Our church family, neighbors, and friends stepped up in a major way, and I am beyond grateful!”

Decorating signs and preparing for Nathan’s return, there was excitement and anticipation in the air. Their long year was coming to a close on Aug. 20. Their first plan was to have a home cooked meal together and play board games. Family time was what they missed the most.

Within the challenges that came with a deployment, the Neals relied on one another and their village. There were lessons to be learned and reasons to persevere despite the long separation, severe isolation and self-doubt. The journey through deployment during COVID-19 was not easy and Kim expressed the challenges with honesty and candor.

“COVID has put us in this weird world of forced isolation, and I know that the military lifestyle already isolates us from time to time," said Kim. "This experience has verified what I already knew. We can’t do this on our own. Find your village. There are people around you that want to help, but they often don’t know what you need. Be vulnerable. A rough patch doesn’t make you a bad parent or a bad spouse. It makes you human. There were so many moments this year where I struggled with depression and anxiety, and my church-family and friends were my constant voice of reason. Even when the world closed, COVID did not stop them from checking on me and the family. Find your village and be the village.”