Dan Clapero was driving from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to his home in Shakopee when it hit him: For the next year, daily life would completely change.

It was July. The airport goodbye with their three young sons had been weird. His wife, Capt. Elizabeth Clapero of the Minnesota National Guard’s 1904th Acquisition Team — aka “Mom” — was wearing camouflage fatigues. Strangers kept thanking her for her service and showering their boys with candy. The commercial pilots let the boys play in the cockpit. Then they hugged, and Mom got on the plane for a yearlong deployment to Kuwait, and Clapero drove off in the family’s SUV with the boys piled in the back: Calvin, about to enter fourth grade; Franklin, about to start kindergarten; and Norman, 4.

“It was the drive home when I finally choked up,” said Clapero, a 38-year-old middle school history teacher at Eagle Ridge Academy in Minnetonka, where his older sons attend school. “When I got home, I was struggling to open the front door. My hand was shaking. Because everyone else was going about their day, but I knew that for us, everything had just all changed.”

Minnesotans use the holidays to give thanks to troops serving abroad. But what you hear often from deployed soldiers is this: It’s the little things on the home front that matter most.

In the northeast metro suburb of Hugo, the Yellow Ribbon Network sends care packages to deployed soldiers — since 2012, 48,000 pounds of stuff for Minnesota National Guard soldiers serving around the world. It also organizes a Secret Santa program for children in military families.

In Woodbury, 40 Starbucks employees from around the region gathered last week to pack 103 boxes to send to Guard members deploying to the Middle East in December: 1-pound bags of Starbucks Christmas blend, boxes of Starbucks Via instant coffee, snacks and toiletry items. The employees, along with their district manager, Ron Jarvi Jr., a Minnesota National Guard soldier who served in Iraq a decade ago, also adopted the family of a deployed soldier for the holidays.

In Brooklyn Park, Wurth Adams, a company that distributes assembly and fastening materials, is also adopting a military family this holiday season. A year ago it adopted a family in Maple Grove whose dad was deployed. They purchased toys and clothes for the kids, gift cards to a furniture store for new mattresses, and a spa package for mom.

It’s a relatively small thing, but as a military spouse, the company’s human resources manager, Jessica Wahlberg, knows the importance of the gesture.

“It’s the little things sometimes that make a difference,” she said. “Just knowing you have that network of people you can rely on.”

Helping hands

Clapero has found his network, at school and at home. One neighbor helped bag leaves this fall. Another bought big candy bars for the boys for Halloween. Still another babysits the boys a few hours here and there so Clapero has time to gather his thoughts.

When Merry Jo Orr, mother of two of Clapero’s former students, heard Clapero’s wife would be deployed until April, she immediately pitched in.

Every Tuesday, Orr brings a big meal to the school and gives it to Clapero. She makes enough to last for two dinners, because she knows Clapero doesn’t consider himself much of a cook. If she makes chili for her family, she’ll make extra for his. Before Thanksgiving, she made Clapero’s family a big meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a green bean casserole. When a friend told her she had a ham in the freezer, she brought it to Clapero for Christmas break.

“He told me that their boys pray for the lady that brings them the food,” Orr said.

Clapero had only an inkling of life as a military spouse when he met his future wife at a downtown Minneapolis bar 12 years ago. He had taught for one year at a middle school in Yuma, Ariz., near Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, and he remembered his students talking about parents deployed in Iraq. When they met, Liz had been home only a few months after a 22-month Iraq deployment with the 34th Infantry Division, the longest continuous deployment for any military unit during the Iraq war.

The connection was immediate. They sat on a staircase and talked for hours. Both loved fancy restaurants. Both loved history. The next day they went on their first date, to the Science Museum of Minnesota. He proposed to her there a couple of years later.

This deployment is the first for her since they’ve been a couple.

With Mom away, life is carried out with military precision. The boys’ outfits are laid out the night before. Clapero’s alarm goes off at 5:50 a.m. He knocks on Calvin’s door first. Next is Franklin, usually a zombie, and finally Norman, always a wild card.

They’re out the door by 6:50 a.m. at the latest, with an 8-minute drive to Norman’s day care in Shakopee before pulling in to Eagle Ridge Academy by 7:30 a.m., where the kids eat breakfast. Clapero’s students walk in the door by 7:45 a.m. It’s a tight fit to start the day — just one morning tantrum can throw off the schedule.

‘You get run down’

Clapero does his best to juggle it all. The most difficult part, he says, has been managing his children’s emotions. Calvin has been sad and misses his mother. Franklin has had some behavior troubles in school. When he kicked a kid in the eye last month, his teacher marched him to Clapero’s classroom at the end of the day.

“Since she’s gone, you have a good cop/bad cop thing, and I have to deal with all the negatives,” Clapero said. “It’s hard to constantly be that positive. You want to provide for your kids, but you get run down.”

On a recent weekend evening in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Liz Clapero, 34, took her cellphone to a gazebo outside a Starbucks on base and dialed up her family on Facebook Messenger. The boys gathered around a laptop in their Shakopee living room.

“Hi Calvin!” Liz said. “How are you?”

She asked if he was doing his homework. She asked about wrestling. He gave one-word answers, so she pushed a button and put a filter on her face. She turned into a witch, then a fire-breathing dragon. Soon, the boys were roaring. She talked about her upcoming pass to come home for Thanksgiving.

“I got some powdered camel milk for you and your brothers,” she said.

“How does it taste?” Calvin asked. “Sweet? Sour? Bitter?”

“It’s a little more sour.”

“I love sour stuff!” said Calvin. “Sour Skittles!”

As the boys laughed with their mother, 24 papers from Clapero’s eighth-grade history class sat on the living room table. The students were instructed to write about immigration: Ellis Island, Angel Island or modern-day immigration. Clapero’s school has many students from immigrant families. One paper was from a Somali refugee whose grandfather had been killed in war. The boy spent five years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the U.S.

The eighth-grader was sad to leave his grandmother. It was his first time on a plane. He learned English from Scooby-Doo.

“My family decided to move to America because we heard that there were opportunities and we would be able to make a better living, we would have more freedom from the government and it’s easy to start your own business thanks to capitalism,” he wrote.

Clapero tells stories like these to his sons. This, he tells them, is what Mom is fighting for.