Daddy in the Army, Mommy at home: How an Ellsworth couple is coping with a 10-month deployment and a new firstborn
The Caspers' kitchen is a photo album.
Each cupboard serves as a large frame for 8.5-by-11-inch printed photographs of a smiling man in an Army uniform.
Though it sits empty, Melinda Casper glances over at her 14-month-old son's highchair seat at the head of the kitchen table, a symbol of his presence in the house.
"We reference dad all the time," she said, smiling. "He knows who dad is, he knows his face, he knows his voice, he knows that he is someone important to us."
There's a glint in her eye that tells of longing and anticipation.
"But he doesn't remember him being in our home."
For the past 10 months, Ellsworth resident and teacher Melinda has raised her son and first child Raleigh Casper without her husband Ryan Casper at home.
Ryan, who is also an Ellsworth educator, was deployed to Kuwait in July 2018 as an Army Reservist Medical Regulating Officer just four and a half months after Raleigh was born.
This is Ryan's second deployment since being with Melinda, who he met while teaching social studies in Ellsworth, but it is his sixth deployment during his 36-year military career.
For Melinda, this deployment is unlike the first. When Ryan deployed in 2013, Melinda pursued a dream she always had of teaching abroad. She left her position at the Ellsworth school district and spent two years in Qatar.
"That deployment was different because I was on my own adventure," Melinda said. "My responsibilities are far different now. I'm at home, we have a son, I'm not off galavanting or backpacking. I miss him for Raleigh. Those were the times where I wanted to turn around and say 'Ryan look, he just walked five steps' or 'he just rolled over'!"
For Ryan, this deployment is also foreign to the rest. In earlier deployments in the 1990s and early 2000s, he had an older daughter named Alisha from a previous marriage that ended. With those first military experiences, he had few fears or worries regarding deployments though he missed loved ones.
"This deployment has been unique in that I've started my second marriage and my second family later in life and it has been more challenging now with the little guy at home and Melinda raising him," Ryan said.
Ryan said he finds it difficult to feel close to his wife and new son despite having opportunities to talk via WhatsApp through video calls nearly every day.
"It (technology) helps alleviate some of the traditional communication barriers of the past," Ryan said in an email. "Technology, however, will never replace being there and throughout the yearlong process of pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment," he said.
Despite some internet connection issues and glitches which are irritating, Melinda said, Ryan has done well listening to his wife when she needs him to and being a supportive dad from 6,700 miles away.
To give Raleigh a sense his father is near, Ryan sends Raleigh books and a video of him reading the book aloud so they can "read together." Melinda and Raleigh also receive postcards and letters of encouragement from Ryan, which Melinda said are very special.
Melinda has not only felt supported by Ryan, she has experienced it from the Ellsworth community and military family programs outside the village as well.
"The best lesson I have learned is that there is strength in asking and accepting help. We tend to be very independent in our society," Melinda said. "You don't want people to see your ugly side, but I needed to learn that. It has brought about a richness in my life. Throughout all of this, I have never felt alone. I might be by myself, but I am not alone. That is very comforting."
She had neighbors with big hearts for military families offer to help mow her lawn and snow blow when needed.
Although she chose not to formally join a military family support group, Melinda was partnered with a woman from New Jersey through a program which provides informal trained support for military spouses.
"There have been times where I call her at 6 a.m. crying from being tired during Raleigh's sleep training," Melinda admitted. "That was probably one of the best things I did, to have her."
Throughout her experience as a "solo mom," she dubbed herself, Melinda has been overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to take the school year off and stay home with her son.
"It's sort of like this sacrificial blessing. If Ryan were here teaching, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom. I would be a working mom," Melinda said. "I got to live every minute in the simplicity of it. When we go out in the backyard, we sit and look at flowers for ten minutes without rushing. I get to drink in all of it. It's been the most magical experience that I didn't know I was going to get. We had to sacrifice his (Ryan's) absence, but we (Raleigh and I) gained an incredible amount of time together that we wouldn't have otherwise had."
In the midst of her gratitude, Melinda said she has developed the utmost respect for single mothers who do not have an anticipated expiration date on their solo parenting journey as Melinda does.
Though Ryan's exact arrival date back to Ellsworth is still unknown, Ryan was expected to leave Kuwait on May 10 and complete a reacclimation phase in Texas which may last over one week.
To see her son and her husband play and interact together after Raleigh's developments over the months is something Melinda is patiently awaiting. However, with the family reintegrating Ryan in the picture, Melinda must also relinquish some control over the parental responsibilities.
"It's within my personality to appreciate control. I've had to be really structured. I've learned to meet both Raleigh's needs and my needs with the least amount of stress possible," Melinda said.
"Melinda has her routine with Raleigh and now I will be reintroduced into the picture," Ryan said. "This is a time of challenge for many military families as both husband and wife have been functioning independent of each other, so now the family work begins for me."
Both the Casper family and the Casper house will be undergoing many changes in the next few months as remodeling plans are scheduled for this summer.
For a brief period, Melinda and Raleigh will stay in Roberts with Melinda's father during reconstruction. Melinda said she hopes Ryan can find it beneficial to have some alone time, but the family will be planning many trips to the zoo, the park and the lake.
Raleigh's mom and dad will transition back to the Ellsworth schools after summer ends and the family is together again in the house.
When Raleigh is older, Melinda hopes he will understand just how much his parents loved him, showed him affection and gave him a solid foundation despite their temporary separation.
Now it is only a matter of time before Raleigh's dad will have transcended the phone screen and the taped-up photographs in the kitchen to be home, looking at the backyard flowers with him.