It was a depressing moment in the Clapero household in Shakopee when, one Friday in mid-April, a package arrived from Kuwait.
The package was a suitcase filled with things like long-sleeved shirts that Capt. Elizabeth Clapero of the Minnesota National Guard's 1904th Acquisition Team no longer needed as the desert heat in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, spiked toward its sauna-like spring and summer. It was intended as a prelude for Clapero's imminent and joyful return to her husband, Dan, and their three boys, age 9, 6 and 4. She left for the nine-month deployment in July. She was due back in late April. A potential trip to Disney World was in the cards.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and caused the U.S. military to issue a stop-movement order on American troops. That meant that Clapero's return, as well as four other Minnesota National Guard soldiers deployed with her, is delayed. Families are guessing it'll be later in June, or even into July, when the soldiers return home. Right now, though, they just don't know, and the military has yet to identify the troops who will be taking over their roles, according to the Minnesota National Guard.
In the meantime, they're dealing with the reality of households missing a key person in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.
"When she left, I was isolated: Work, home, that's it," said Dan Clapero, a middle school history teacher at Eagle Ridge Academy in Minnetonka. "Take the boys to a restaurant once a week. Now it's just my house since everything got shut down. As soon as school started online for the boys, I'm locked down at the table now. The hours are long, but the days are fast."
The stop-movement order is not expected to impact 700 soldiers from the Second Battalion, 135th Infantry of the Minnesota National Guard who will be deploying to the Horn of Africa after premobilization training at Camp Ripley in midsummer. And it's not expected to impact the fall return of the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, who have been deployed in the Middle East since late fall.
For the five Minnesota soldiers in the 1904th Acquisition Team, however, the military lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus has thrust them into limbo. Some good news came in April. The original 60-day stop movement order was extended another 30 days, but these five soldiers (as well as others scheduled to return home) were granted exceptions from that. So a June or July return is likely, despite the continued uncertainty.
"We are doing everything we can to ensure a swift and safe demobilization, and we remain committed to helping families through these unprecedented times," Stephen E. Schemenauer, commander of the Minnesota Army National Guard's 347th Regional Support Group, said in a statement.
Clapero's stress is echoed by Tammy Penkhus of Pine River, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Todd Penkhus, works at the VA hospital in St. Cloud but is now serving as a contract administrator at a base in Kuwait. Todd set up snow removal and lawn care before he deployed in July, and Tammy said their support network in town has been strong.
"But it's been tough, I'm not going to lie," Tammy said. "We're ready for him to come home."
It's one thing when you are mentally preparing for a 12-month deployment. But when a nine-month deployment gets extended to 11 or 12 months, that makes it infinitely harder. They were planning a big party for Todd's 55th birthday on May 20. Now, they just hope Todd's oldest stepdaughter, who lives in Florida, can see him when she visits in early July. Tammy is dreaming of a Minnesota summer with Todd — shooting trap at Pine River Fish and Game Club, buying a new pontoon and getting out on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes — it's just that she has no idea when that summer will begin.
"I'm sad," she said. "It's everything. It's the unknown. It's just wanting him home and wanting our lives back to whatever the new normal is going to be."
Dan Clapero took a leave of absence in March to prepare for his wife's return. In mid-March, after only two weeks of his leave, the school shut down for three weeks. He'd planned to return to teaching in May, but instead will go back at the beginning of the next school year.
His worst moment was during the week when Minnesota went into lockdown. His 4-year-old, Norman, was breathing heavily. Clapero didn't think it was COVID-19, but his wife was worried. Clapero spent two hours to get through on a nurse hotline. The nurse advised him to go to an emergency room. He remembered there was a clinic at the new Hy-Vee in Shakopee, so he took all three kids there. He noticed all the children's aspirin was sold out. The nurse examined Norman.
It was strep throat. Deep breath.
"You just have all those bad thoughts," Clapero said.
Both Penkhus and Clapero realize every family has its own struggles now. When Clapero feels down, he reminds himself to be thankful the kids can still videochat with mom. He's thankful they have their health, and their jobs. He watches a stand-up comedy act on Netflix before bed. He stays positive for the kids.
When his wife gets home, he'd love to pack up the car and visit a national park out West. Maybe Yellowstone. Or the Badlands. Just away. The only store Clapero has been to since early March is that Hy-Vee a mile away.
"At this point I'd just be excited to go 20 miles down the road," he said.