It was 3 a.m. in Arden Hills. Winds gusted to 30 miles per hour.
"Brrr," said Madison Chaffee, not quite 9 years old, after she walked into the Ben Franklin Readiness Center on a dark, chilly morning in October 2019.
Madison yawned. Her dad — Brian, who like his wife serves full time in the Minnesota National Guard — carried her 3-year-old sister, Ally. It was too early for two little girls to be awake, but for the next year, their mom, First Sgt. Jen Chaffee, would be deployed in the Middle East with the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade.
Madison had told her mother it felt like a far-off dream, that deep down she felt Mom wasn't really going to leave after all. But now here they were, all saying goodbye.
Here it was: a year without Mom.
"I'm going to miss you two," Jen told her third-grader through tears. "But where will I always be?"
"In my heart."
"I'm right there with you, OK? Whenever you're feeling sad."
With her pajamas peeking out of her coat, Madison gave Mom a hug so big it seemed she'd never let go.
"Don't grow up too much on me, OK?" Jen said.
Then she walked away. As a first sergeant, she had to put her Army face on. The girls kept crying, but Jen didn't look back.
She knew this wouldn't be like her last deployment to Iraq in 2006 when she met Brian, the two of them Army worker bees among 160,000 American military members at the height of a chaotic, dangerous war. This promised to be a more sedate deployment. Jen's role was in logistics, her company of 110 soldiers in charge of fueling, loading helicopters and moving equipment, life support of a brigade scattered through the Middle East.
But Jen was more worried this time. She wasn't just a soldier anymore. She was a leader, and a mom.
As much as people focus on the soldiers — worrying for their safety, shipping care packages, counting the days until their return — Jen's mind was squarely on her kids.
"They didn't sign up for this," she said later. "We did. We knowingly got married, both in the military, and we knew it would pull us apart from time to time. But they got stuck with it. They got born into it."
At the National Guard facility, Brian scooped up Madison to head back to their Scandia home: "It's going to be hard," he said. "But we're going to get through it, OK?"
He gave his daughter a kiss. They walked outside into the darkness. And the hardest year of their lives began.
* * *
They had no idea then how difficult the next 375 days would be.
There was drama the Chaffees shielded the girls from. The helicopter crash in Minnesota that killed three National Guard service members, and Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi bases that housed many of Jen's soldiers. Brian's best friend getting diagnosed with cancer, and the days of violent unrest in the Twin Cities when Brian served on state active duty.
Then there was the 2020 that couldn't be hidden. As their Disney cruise in March ended, Madison heard a bummer of an announcement: that this would be the last Disney cruise for a while because of the virus.
When she got home, Madison's school had gone virtual, so she didn't even get to see her friends. Then Dad left for two months of Army training in California while the girls stayed with their grandparents Up North. Then Dad thought he had COVID-19 so he had to isolate from his daughters for more than a week.
And one of their dogs died.
On phone calls with his wife in Kuwait, it was hard for Brian to explain exactly what was happening at home. It was one thing telling Jen about the everyday challenges of parenting kids of deployed soldiers. Like when Madison struggled with sleep, and had good days and bad days, with bad days sometimes starting at the school counselor's office, made a little better by the stuffed Army bear her teacher left on her desk.
It was another thing explaining how a virus upended life. In spring, as Minnesota locked down, Jen was confused why Brian bought half a cow (a potential meat shortage) and why he couldn't find toilet paper (a very real shortage). She bought 10 rolls, plus paper towels and Clorox wipes, on base and sent the package home. (Brian laughed when he saw the toilet paper was made in Wisconsin.)
Madison watched Dad do his best. He worked from home while watching his girls — even had his father move in to help. He helped Madison with distance learning. ("Dad, you need to be quiet, I'm in a meeting!") He read bedtime stories. He shot guns with the girls on their acreage. Short of playing with American Girl dolls, Dad is pretty darn fun, and he can do lots of things: snuggle and cook and fish and braid hair and build snowmen. "He spoils us," Madison said.
The one thing Dad can't do?
"You can't replace Mom." said Brian.
* * *
Against Mom's wishes, Madison was growing up.
She learned to ride the four-wheeler. Brian gave her an allowance for helping with Ally and the dogs. She helped her sister get dressed and brush her teeth. Madison learned to cook and bake, making cupcakes and muffins and scrambled eggs and mac and cheese.
"It's sad to see a young girl have to grow up that quick," her father lamented.
Madison kept a journal to give Mom. "Christmas was good, but it wasn't as good as it would have been with you," she wrote.
"I had so much fun on my trip," she wrote after the cruise.
"I caught a fish! I didn't get to keep it though," she wrote in the summer.
At Lakeside Elementary School in Chisago City, her third-grade teacher, Andrea Hitchcock, heard Madison speak about her dad deploying to Iraq when she was a baby. But this was different.
Her teacher made sure Mom felt connected. On Halloween, teachers shipped candy to troops. Before Christmas the school had Red Friday, where everyone wore red for families of deployed troops. Students collected thousands of items — socks and coffee and puzzles — and shipped those, too.
"Madison glowed through the whole thing," her teacher said.
During "I Love to Read Month," Jen videoconferenced from Kuwait and read the class a book on unicorns. Madison beamed.
At the end of third grade, Madison almost missed the class virtual party. Dad was activated because of Twin Cities unrest, and Madison's grandparents were stumped by Google Meet.
So Madison videocalled Mom in Kuwait. Jen connected to the party on her laptop, and she held up her phone with Madison's face.
"Madison was a little wise beyond her years," her teacher said. "She'd say when she was missing her mom, and she wasn't afraid to just talk about it a little bit. You could feel how proud she was of her mom."
* * *
In her bedroom in Camp Buehring, Jen was bored. Once COVID restrictions hit, it became Groundhog Day. She was stuck on base and could no longer visit her soldiers in Iraq. After work, she binge-watched all 17 seasons of "NCIS."
When she called home, the only new things to report were what was for dinner. It broke her heart when the kids were suddenly done talking: "OK, Mom, bye!"
Sometimes she asked them to bring the phone to the playroom so she could just watch. Once, the girls forgot she was on the phone and walked out.
"I'd think to myself, 'Why am I here?' " Jen said. "Then I would remember that part of the reason why I went on the deployment was because of my family. Me having two little girls and really still in a man's world — if I don't go, what am I teaching them? What I'm doing is teaching my girls a lot."
* * *
The girls spent summer missing Mom and barely seeing Dad. But they always had a date in mind: Mom would be home before Madison's birthday in late October.
When Jen and Brian learned the deployment was extended five weeks, perhaps more, they were upset: "That was my 'This is never going to end' moment," Jen said.
With his girls, Brian thought it better to be vague. So he just changed the target date.
"I starting telling the girls, 'Mom's going to be home for Christmas,' " he said. "You don't want to break a kid's heart."
If she noticed Dad's subtle shift in timing, Madison didn't show it. "She didn't want me to worry any more than I had to already worry," Brian said. "It sounds weird, being a 10-year-old, but she was the mother figure."
Fourth grade began, some days virtual and some in school. "Distance learning is the worst thing in the world," Madison said. "I would rather be at school more than anything." Madison worried Mom would get back after her own birthday but in time for her little sister's birthday in November. That would be so unfair.
But Madison knew their year without Mom was creeping to an end.
"It has been," Madison sighed, "horrrr-ible."
* * *
As Jen's return neared, Brian overheard Madison coaching Ally: "You have to act like you don't dress yourself," Madison said. "Mom's going to want to dress you. We know we can do all these things by ourselves. But we can't."
"What are you going to do when you see Mom?" Brian asked.
"I'm going to give her a hug and never let go," Madison said.
A few days before Madison's birthday, Brian told them they would all go to the airport for a dress rehearsal for Mom's return. Driving to the airport just to practice? Madison sniffed out a trick. Dad had seemed anxious, getting Mom's car detailed, having the girls make welcome-home posters, staying up until 3:30 a.m. shampooing carpets.
"I just want everything to be perfect when she gets back," Brian explained.
The airport was crowded with military families. This seemed like the real thing. Madison got sad: "Other moms and dads are coming home today," she said. "It's not fair!"
Then, from around the corner, stepped Mom.
* * *
For Jen, it was jarring to adjust to a different life. Empty rush hours, online school.
She quickly learned the everyday disappointments of pandemic life. Brian had a potential COVID-19 contact at work, so Madison's birthday party was canceled. That night Madison blew out 10 candles on the big cake they'd already ordered.
By Ally's fifth birthday, the state had gone into lockdown: no party for her, either. At Ally's request, birthday dinner was chicken nuggets.
Her girls are different, too — more grown up and independent. Sometimes, Ally brushes her hair and her teeth on her own. Madison makes her own breakfast and lunch and is always on time for class. Madison has become more private; when Mom comes into her room, Madison shoves away the tablet on which she'd been watching a show.
Jen sometimes feels sad she missed a chapter of their childhoods. More often, she's proud: "They learned how to become strong, independent little women."
What Jen appreciates most is little moments: rubbing Madison's back as she drifts to sleep. Seeing her show off her latest drawing. Hearing Ally play make-believe. It surprised Jen to hear Barbie was pregnant, half a plastic Easter egg stuffed under her shirt to conceal a tiny doll.
There's an elf on the shelf, sitting on a gingerbread house. There's a Christmas tree, and a brand-new star Ally placed on top. Madison knows Christmas morning will be better this year, even with the virus, because Mom is home.
When Jen and Brian look at Madison and Ally, they're proud this difficult year has made them stronger. But both think deployments are harder on families than the soldiers.
"Yes, we are the ones that are gone — we are the ones doing the dangerous job," Jen said. "But they are the ones that are left back here wondering, not knowing necessarily if their mom or dad are OK."
"It's the children," she said, "who are the hidden heroes."