Almost exactly one year ago — on Oct. 13, 2019 — Capt. Rich Hedin left Minnesota to be deployed in the Middle East as a network information officer with the Minnesota National Guard.
Hedin had no illusions about how difficult the year would be on his wife, Heather, a school nurse in Mankato who used to be in the Guard, and their two children, Katelyn, then a kindergartner at Rosa Parks Elementary, and Jackson, then 2.
But he’s a military man, and they’re a military family. An Eagle Scout from Hutchinson, Minn., he went on his first overseas deployment in 2004 and was stationed at Baghdad International Airport. He met Heather later when he was her platoon leader — they kept their relationship on the down low at first — and then, after Heather took an officer’s commission in Fort Lewis, Wash., Rich deployed to Kuwait in 2013. He watched his daughter’s birth on Skype and met Katelyn at the airport seven weeks later.
So they made plans for what would certainly be a difficult year. They went on a marital retreat for military families. Rich read his kids Dr. Seuss over FaceTime. Heather’s twin sister, who lives nearby, took the kids one night a week to give Heather a breather. Co-workers brought dinners. Increased tensions in the Middle East when Iran struck U.S. bases in Iraq added to Heather’s stress. She went on anti-anxiety medication. She joined a Bible study.
It was still winter when Rich e-mailed his wife with a surprising request: to extend his yearlong deployment for another eight or nine months.
“The incoming unit, the 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, is asking me to stay through their tour,” he asked Heather. “You mind if I stay?” He did not expect her to approve.
But she did. He’d always supported her, so she’d support him. Plus, she said, the kids are young. If you want to do it, now’s the time.
“Usually, when somebody asks, I’m the one to volunteer,” Rich said the other day from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. “But it’s hard — it’s really hard. Jackson just turned three in September, and he’s in a growth spurt. I try and Skype or FaceTime as much as possible with Katelyn, ask how she’s doing, read books with her, go over sight words. Now we’re talking about once she gets done with first grade, that’s when Dad should be able to get home. We can go camping.”
Heather has drawn on her own experience to get through these months, especially hectic for a school nurse during COVID-19. “Basically, just keep my head down and keep going,” she said.
The first months were the hardest. Katelyn would often be crying walking into school. Some mornings, she started her day at the counselor’s office to talk about her dad.
Rich hopes to be back before summer 2021, and he will take a big chunk of time off before returning to his day job at the Minneapolis VA. He’s looking forward to reading to his kids in person instead of virtually, and he’s looking forward to sleeping in his own bed.
Though that may be difficult at first.
“I tried so hard to keep the kids in their beds,” Heather said. “But I got over it. We’re doing what our family needs. They need the security and comfort of knowing mom’s right there. It’s the same thing with COVID — I got over the judgments of people. We’re still seeing family. It’s just being OK with your decision, and that relates to Rich extending his deployment, too. Some people think that’s selfish of Rich: ‘I can’t believe you allowed him to extend!’ But I’m OK with our decision. He’s supported me and my career choices, so I’m trying to support him and his career choices.”