JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. -- She looked up to the ceiling and took a deep breath as tears began to glisten from behind her dark, square-framed glasses - a stark contrast to the precise composure displayed just moments before. "My mom was..." she stopped, blinking rapidly and clearing her throat. "When my sister and I were little, my mom and dad separated for a while. We were really poor when I was a kid, and I remember we wouldn't get whatever we may have wanted, but we always had everything we needed." Staff Sgt. Heather Seeger paused a moment to wipe her eyes.
"I remember times waking up in the middle of the night and coming out in the living room, seeing the lights on at 2 o'clock in the morning," she continued with a faint crackle in her voice. "I would see my mom sitting at the table studying. She was going to school trying to get a better job for us, and I had no idea how she did that. How she did school and took care of my sister and me by herself. For that, she is the strongest person I know." For Heather, that memory holds significance now more than ever. As a mother of six children, two with special needs, she devotes every effort to creating lasting memories which keep her family strong during her husband's deployment.
However, being a full-time mom and noncommissioned officer in charge of production analysis for the 1st Maintenance Operations Squadron would be an impossible task if not for a strong support system of family, friends, co-workers and even her own children. Shortly after first learning of her husband's deployment tasking, the Seeger family sat down to discuss how this would impact 12-year-old Gregory, 10-year-old Haely, 9-year-old Angel, 7-year-old Kevin, 5-year-old Nick and 3-year-old Jake. "We had a talk with the kids, letting them know they'd have to be more responsible and help me out more since their dad was going to be gone," said Heather, as she glanced toward a framed picture of her children. "I didn't even tell them to do this, but they each wrote me a letter of how they were going to help me.
"Angel wrote, 'If you ever need help, just let me know. I'll watch Kevin and make sure he doesn't get in trouble and I'll make sure Nick does his homework.' The fact they took on the responsibility themselves, that they were not going only going to help me out but also help each other, spoke volumes," Heather continued, blinking back tears. "I was so proud they stepped up without me having to say anything." For Angel, watching her younger brothers is her way of taking the load off her mother. "It's been a little hard because Dad isn't here to help out with the boys," said Angel. "I've been trying to help watch Jake and take care of the others for Mom." While her children have started helping her in little ways, Seeger said one of the hardest things to cope with during her husband's absence is having to bear the load of their tiring schedules alone. "When I get off work, I'll go pick up the kids from daycare and school, and one has a tutor so we take her there and we all sit in the car and wait for her to get done," she said. "Most of the time I don't get home until 6:30 or 7 p.m. As soon as we get in the door, it's dinner, homework, baths, bed, and I'm not even out of my ABUs until 9 p.m., sometimes." Her ability to juggle all aspects of being a mother and Airman is a testament to the type of person she is, said Heather's husband, Tech Sgt. Doug Seeger, assigned to the 1st MOS maintenance operations center, and currently deployed to Japan. "She's nonstop on the go from the time she wakes up until the time she goes to bed. I don't know how she does it," he said. "The fact she's been able to handle all of that and still make sure the kids have everything they need, and still manage being in the military herself, amazes me every day."
According to Heather, the flexibility found within her work center plays a huge role in ensuring the family's daily operations run smoothly during her husband's absence. "Now that he's deployed, his supervisor is asking me all the time if I need anything," she said. "My shop has also been really awesome, if I need to take my kids to appointments, or if anything else comes up. Support from our shops has honestly been the best." In addition to the support given by her co-workers, Heather has also relied on friends to help relieve some stress, and ensure she has those critical moments of "me time." "Even if I go to the grocery store by myself, it's almost my alone time. I can crank my radio in the car and I can be by myself for 20 minutes," she said. "I have to take the breaks when they come and grab the minutes when I can. Even now, coming to work is like a break for me. This is where I can talk to grown-ups and have normal conversations, because I have to switch into kid mode as soon as I get off work." While this is the first time the family has had to endure a long separation, Heather's ability to keep her family together stems from lessons learned along her journey of motherhood. She picked up the framed photo of her children, pointing to her first child, Gregory, whom she had when she was 18. Heather held the photo, expressing how having to adapt to caring for a child with special needs at such a young age helped her face the many other challenges that have resulted in her family, such as her son Nick's recent diagnosis of a learning disorder.
"[Gregory] is autistic and has Tourette syndrome, so especially with those challenges, it made me grow up a lot quicker," she said. "I was obviously scared being so young, I didn't know it wasn't my fault, and in a way it made me feel inadequate. But after much research and doctors' advice, I realized it wasn't my fault. It has made other challenges that have come along a lot easier to deal with now than when I was 18."
While for some, hurdles that naturally arise with a special needs child may be discouraging, Heather said it only brings her more joy. "Even though we had our challenges with Gregory, he is still one of the sweetest, most loving and considerate kids I've ever met," she said. "He's the type of kid that would tell me I looked pretty, or snuggle with me on the couch - how could I not want more children after that?" As she set the picture frame back on the table, Heather admitted that while her husband's absence takes its toll on her at times, she finds strength in her children's happiness. "I've had my crying moments, my moments where I've gone into the bathroom, closed the door, sat on the edge of the tub and cried," she said. "But you don't have a choice; you have to do what you have to do. As long as they're happy and they're having fun, that's all I really care about." Doug said the strength and devotion his wife has displayed during his deployment is unparalleled. "It's been really hard knowing all the challenges she has faced while I have been gone, knowing there is very little I can do from so far away, but she is also one of the toughest people out there," he said. "She has been able to handle everything that's been tossed her way while I've been gone, without even blinking. She is an absolutely amazing person and mother, by far the most kind and caring person I have ever met." Heather said she wants to show the love and care she has for her children through her actions; something she learned from her mother. "I don't necessarily think buying kids things shows them how much you love them," she said. "I can't remember one thing my mom bought me as a kid, but I remember her taking me places, like going to get ice cream and going to parks."
Angel remembers those very moments - a reflection of her mother's efforts. "I love that Mom takes us to fun places," said Angel. "She's nice, caring, loving, fun and awesome." Creating lasting memories with her children is important to Heather, but sometimes finding the time to do so can be challenging. Whether through friends, utilizing resources provided by the Airman and Family Readiness Center or telephone calls to her own mother for advice, Heather said one of the most important lessons she has learned over time is asking for help when she needs it. "As much as you may feel that you have to do everything yourself, you don't. I know a lot of times I would feel guilty letting people watch my kids or letting people help me because I thought it was my job to do everything," she said. "You don't have to be 'Super Mom' - it's ok to let someone else help you and take the reins for a while." As Mother's Day approached, Doug regretted not being able to take the reins for Heather, or share the day with his wife and children. "I wish I was home this year for it to give her the break she so greatly deserves," he said. "Mother's Day is very important to me - it's great to have a day to honor her and to simply say 'thank you' for all the things she does, all the things we take for granted, all the sacrifices she has made to make sure everyone else is taken care of and all the happiness she brings to our lives every day."
Although bearing the weight of her family's challenges may be stressful, Heather said she wouldn't have it any other way. "No matter how bad my day can get, the kids can still light up the room," she said. "They humble me. With kids, you slow down and learn to appreciate what's important; you try to enjoy the little things because they aren't going to be little forever. They're always excited to see you, and they love you unconditionally and wholly. I can't imagine how boring my life would be without them."
Through the trials of her husband's deployment, Heather feels her journey as a mother has come full circle.
"I hope they see me the same way I see my mom," she said. "I hope they see that maybe they don't get every single toy that they ask for, but they get what they need from us emotionally, and we love them - we make sure that they're loved. I hope they remember that love."
And with that, she took the picture of her children in her hands and smiled, the faint glisten of tears returning to her eyes. She expressed pride in her family and its ability to endure during such a delicate time, never once crediting that success to herself - speaking with a humility displayed only by someone who possesses a keen sense of what it truly means to be "Mom."