The Grover children are like stepping-stones – each representing the happy family times they’ve shared between deployments with their dad, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Grover.
Delanie, 12, kept her mom, Sandy, busy and involved during the lonely months of her dad’s first deployment. She was only four months old when he deployed in 2004. The deployment took him to Iraq for 12 months.
“That was my first deployment,” said Sandy, who had no experience with the military prior to her marriage. “But I had Delanie and family support, and a wonderful neighbor at Fort Riley, Kansas, who helped me big time. She would watch Delanie for me while I took a shower or mowed the grass, things like that.
“Our neighbor also gave me a lot of emotional support. I had just gotten married, had a baby and moved away from home for the first time. If it weren’t for our neighbor, I would have been very lonely.”
Ashton, 10, and Gavin, 8, both joined the family before their dad’s second deployment.
Ashton was 6 when his dad deployed in 2011 and 8 when he went again in 2013, both times to Afghanistan. His Daddy Doll, complete with a photo of his dad placed in the plastic sleeve on the camouflage-clad doll’s face, helped him feel connected to his dad despite the long months apart.
“During second- and third-grade, he would cry a lot at night,” his mom said. “His Daddy Doll went with him everywhere – to school, to bed, when he went outside. When daddy would get on the phone, Ashton would come running, yelling, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ while the other two were like, ‘Hi, Dad.’”
The youngest, Gavin, 8, was 2 at the time of the 2011 deployment and 4 when his dad deployed in 2013. As the youngest in the family, the deployments seem to have left him the most anxious about family separations and school.
“Gavin doesn’t talk much in school. In first-grade, before we moved here, he was really starting to open up. He had a school counselor at Fort Campbell who really helped him. She helped him go from a child who wouldn’t even look at anyone to an outgoing child who raised his hand in class to ask a question,” Sandy said.
Being a parent during times of war is a challenge, Grover said, “because you miss a lot of milestones, especially when they are young.”
The kids were scared for their dad when he deployed, but they always knew their hero would return home. Yet returning home wasn’t always easy.
“He was gone for so long when Delanie was a baby that their bonding experience was a little rough at first,” Sandy said. “She didn’t know him at all. But he cuddled with her a lot and they made that bond.”
Sandy and the kids coped with the deployments by filling their home with friends. There were lots of sleepovers for Delanie, and lots of boys running in and out of the house with Ashton and Gavin. There were lots of stories to tell dad when he called.
“Gavin was 2 when he locked me out of the house twice while Jonathan was in Afghanistan during the middle deployment,” Sandy said. “One time, I was on the phone with Jonathan and I couldn’t get in the house. Jonathan laughed hysterically while I was trying to get Gavin to let me in. Then, Gavin unlocked the door with a big smile on his face.”
Besides deployments, the family has coped with moves, living at Fort Riley; Fort Belvoir, Virginia; Fort Campbell, Kentucky and Redstone Arsenal. There are certain rules that Sandy follows to turn military life into a normal lifestyle for the children.
“Every time we move, I let the kids pick out their own rooms so that they know that this is their home,” she said. “No matter what is going on, we stay on the same routine. We always eat meals together and we talk about what’s going on, what the issues are. We try to keep things pretty much the norm.”
As the oldest, Delanie has been the most aware of how other kids and their parents react when they learn about her dad. There have been times when her dad has come straight from work at the Aviation and Missile Command to see her cheer at a middle school pep rally, his uniform attracting just about as much attention as the cheerleaders and the athletes.
“My friends think it’s cool that he’s a Soldier because their parents haven’t been to Afghanistan. They like his uniform, too,” she said. “He’s sort of famous.”
And, Gavin’s dad was the guest speaker in his second-grade class during last year’s Veterans Day program.
“He was good. He was a good teacher,” Gavin said. “He showed us about the helicopter. He told us he flew in Black Hawk helicopters. One boy asked him, ‘Did you jump off it?’”
Both Ashton and Gavin want to be in the Army like their dad. Ashton wants to be a military police officer. Gavin just wants to be a Soldier. Delanie has chosen a different path, hoping to be a veterinarian someday.
Like most military kids, the Grover siblings make friends easily wherever they go.
“I like making friends,” Ashton said. “In Tennessee, I made a good friend named Nicholas.”
“They’ve learned that at every place you go things are going to be different and each school environment will be different,” Sandy added.
Grover hopes his children learn respect, courtesy toward others and discipline from being the kids of a Soldier. Sandy, who is attending college part-time, hopes the example she and her husband set show their children the opportunity that is available to them if they work hard.
“I hope they learn from their dad that they can do anything they put their minds to, and how strong they can be and the things they can conquer in life,” she said.
“From me, I hope they learn that they can be independent and take care of everything on their own. They’ve seen that through how I’ve taken care of things while their dad has been away. And I hope they see that you can have a strong relationship with each other even when you are thousands of miles apart.”