I am on a plane. My six months at Bagram Air Base are coming to a close.... Home is just a mirage in this barren desert.... [Later] flying over New York City, I can make out the Statue of Liberty. I still remember showing my boys the video clips of 9/11 before I left in an attempt to explain why we were at war. Why their mommy had to leave them for six months.
It wasn't her little boy running with a Nerf gun that disturbed Maj. Dolly Skeete. As a mother of three sons, she is used to chaos in the house. But her 5-year-old's game of make-believe irked her. "Austin was talking about blowing people up," says Skeete. "I got angry. I said to him, 'Do you know what happens when you blow up someone? To their skin and bones and body?' Then I told him what happens, and that it was my job to fix people who got blown up."
Before her deployment, it might never have occurred to Skeete, an Air Force hand surgeon, to explain the carnage of war to a preschooler. But she isn't the same woman who left her family to serve her country, and the family she returned to has also evolved. "It's wonderful to come home. But it's hard too," she says, navigating the large, well-organized kitchen in her home near Eglin AFB in Florida. "You can't just plop into life and return where you left off."
While the pain of separation and the thrill of reunion are well documented, the more subtle stresses of reentry to family life are rarely discussed publicly. Skeete, 38, is one of more than 100,000 moms who left kids to serve in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars since 2001. (Currently some 6,300 are serving.) She agreed to open her private journals and let People capture some of her early days at home.
May 5, 2011, the day Skeete deployed: As I walked through the terminal, random civilians paused to thank me for my service. I wanted to grab them and scream, "I just left my husband and three sons! I left a baby! I'm going to the edge of a war zone!" But I just nodded in thanks.
Skeete knows she is one of the luckier ones. "I'm not the only parent who left-there are so many mothers and fathers who go for longer," she acknowledges. And, of course, some never come home. When she walked gratefully through the same airport six months later, "I was overjoyed to be with my husband and little gentlemen. I held them all."
Gabriel, 8, had been the first to spot her by the baggage claim, and Austin too was thrilled. But baby Neil, who was just 5 months old when his mother went away, didn't respond. "Part of me expected him not to recognize me. But that was hard to take."
From pictures e-mailed to her in Afghanistan, Skeete knew she had missed a lot. But it is rough to see Neil run around the house, knowing that his time as a wobbly toddler is over. "Dolly left strict instructions that if Neil were to start walking before she came back, we were to knock him down on his butt," says husband of 10 years Larry Skeete, 40, an ER doctor whom she met when she was a med student in Chicago. They kept in e-mail touch while she was gone and are visibly still close, snuggling and eating off each other's plates at a dinner out. But time didn't stop for the kids. "At 9 months, Neil grabbed my mom's finger and took his first steps. It was bittersweet sharing that with someone besides my wife." His mom, Jackie Skeete, moved up from Jamaica to help out, and Dolly's mom also visited. All three took it easy on the boys, who were missing their mother. "During the day they were big and brave," says Jackie. "At night they got small. They wanted to be cuddled." Adds Larry: "My mother and Dolly's mother are wonderful, but grandmothers do not discipline the way a parent does."
One result? "Things are very different," says Skeete. "I trained them to make their beds, put dishes away, pick up their towels. When I was gone, they stopped doing some of those things. There has been a change in going from one authority figure to two."
Skeete reimposed familiar military order. The kids do calisthenics in the morning with the regularity of "brushing their teeth." There is now a chart with her schedule, Larry's and both the kids' school and swimming plans back on the kitchen wall. Slowly the beds started getting made again. The towels found their racks. Says Larry, who had surrendered some control to his mom and her more relaxed methods: "It was great to get back on track."
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Skeete, with Neil on her hip-he's been a little clingy since she returned-prepares dinner: panini and homemade salsa. "Before, Austin didn't like tomatoes," she reports, operating a blender with one hand. But recently, "I made him a sandwich, and he wanted tomato in it. It struck me: It was something I wasn't used to." It is a little thing, but those details-Larry also switched their brand of diapers-gently underscore her outsider status. "I've had to relearn their schedules, their wants. In Afghanistan I just had myself: one moving part. Here I have many moving parts."
Skeete served in southwest Afghanistan, a hotbed of Taliban activity. In 180 days she performed 400 surgeries, including multiple amputations, on U.S. and NATO soldiers and Afghan civilians of all ages.
JUNE 2011: The Afghan kids look like my kids. My own children are half Indian, half African-American. These brown little children look like my sons.... Every morning I expect to be in my own bed. To roll over and feel the warm body of my husband. I expect to hear my baby cooing for his milk. I expect to kiss the necks of my little boys and smell the sleep hiding under their covers. And, again, I wake up and am in my B-hut.
Now, some days, she wakes from a dream next to her husband and thinks she is still in Afghanistan. She likes her work and is proud of what she did there. "I'm good at taking care of people; I love my patients," says Skeete, who entered the Air Force Academy in order to have her education expenses paid. But her tour of duty has left a lasting mark. "I've seen guys lose their legs. Now I don't take running for granted. I've seen kids die. I don't take healthy kids for granted." The children she treated are still in her memory, even as she is surrounded by her own. "Afghan kids have no toys." When Christmas came, "my kids didn't get as many toys; we donated a lot [to needy children]." She says they didn't mind. "Kids don't want as much as we think."
As she pulls into the driveway after hospital work at the Eglin base and a fast trip through the market, she sees Austin and Gabriel battling with plastic light sabers. They don't rush to her as they did in the airport, perhaps a sign that having mom home is starting to feel normal. They are unaware of it now, but the threat of a redeployment looms over the family. "If I get recalled, I will have to go," says Skeete, who has three years left to serve. "Would it wreak havoc on my family? Probably. Would I have guilt? Yes, I have guilt."
After dinner the boys run through the house. Mom joins in, tackling Austin, until they are both laughing on the floor. Later Skeete pores over photos of them on her computer, just as she did in Bagram, even though they are right outside. "It's so good to be home," she says. "It's so good to be home."