VICENZA, Italy – Friends, yoga, a family support group, online courses, a trip to England and a toddler lifted 24-year-old Samantha Windell out of her funk when her husband, Chase, went to war.
"The first few months after my husband deployed were miserable," Windell admitted from her home in Bamberg, Germany. "I wanted to stay at home the whole time."
When Spc. Chase Windell deployed to Afghanistan in May 2007, Sam had just arrived in Europe on her first assignment as an Army spouse, if you don't count basic and advanced individual training.
"Three days after I arrived and joined Chase, he left for a month of field training a month before he deployed," Sam said. "He's seen his kid all of two months of his life."
Damion is Sam and Chase's 14-month-old son. Dad was there for his birth, however, and he did get to see Damion walking when he returned for rest and recuperation.
"He's a miniature replica of my husband," Sam confided. "Every time I look at him, I'm reminded of Chase."
Mom and son aren't housebound anymore though. Every other afternoon they head to the home of best friend Lauren Kemp, whose husband also is deployed. While Sam and Lauren release their stress through yoga, Damion plays with Lauren's 4- and 5-year-olds, Emory and Darby. The families often share grocery expenses and have meals together.
They also travel together. To fight the holiday blues, they found discount flights, and moms and kids visited London for Thanksgiving.
"The biggest change I've seen in Sam is that she's become independent," said Lauren, whose husband, Spc. Dustin Kemp, is in the same unit as Chase: Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The Kemps are experiencing their fourth deployment as a married couple, so Lauren has a veteran's perspective.
"Sam has learned who she is," Lauren continued, "outside of being Damion's mom and Chase's wife. It's the most important thing the spouse of a deployed soldier can learn -- especially during the first deployment."
Lauren explained that during this time of growth and change, communication between deployed spouse and home-front spouse is critical. She warned: "If not, hubby comes home and asks, Who are you?' and, What have you done with my wife?'"
Sam and son are definitely staying in touch with their soldier downrange. She said her husband calls her every chance he gets, which averages about every two to three days. They also communicate by instant messenger and e-mail daily, and she estimates she has sent "a million and a half care packages." In addition, they have Web cams that are crystal clear.
"When Chase came home on R&R, Damion ran to his dad. It was really sweet," Sam recalled. "He's at an age where he's a little afraid of strangers, but he knew who his daddy was."
Family-oriented activities that she can share with her son are one of the things Sam likes about her family readiness group. Besides family readiness group special events, she attends monthly meetings and has found the group's leader to be a good source of accurate information and support.
"The FRG opened a whole new avenue for me," Sam said. "You meet all the unit spouses, and the battalion FRG also holds events and will bring all the company FRGs together. Right now we're making welcome-home baskets for all the single soldiers in the unit."
In turn, the unit's family readiness group benefits from Sam's professional skills. She has a bachelor's in political science, accounting and international business and is working on a master's in business administration. Sam volunteers as her family readiness group's treasurer.
"She's helped to make sure our books stay right," said Janelle Walden, the unit's FRG leader. "She has given her knowledge to others and helped them with financial planning."
When the two first met, Walden remembers Sam keeping to herself, as it was obvious she was new to Army life.
"Being an Army spouse is about sharing and mutual support. She is a true example of that and has shown herself to be a priceless asset," Walden said.
The rear detachment is another resource the Colebrook, Ohio, native recommends, along with family readiness groups and Army Community Service orientation and empowerment courses. Sam said that when she hears rumors about her husband's unit or just needs information, she goes to the rear detachment sergeant for the straight answer. And if the sergeant doesn't have the information readily available, she goes out on her own to find it for Sam.
Samantha Windell's short answer to the secret of living successfully as the spouse of a deployed soldier is simple: "Get out there and get involved."
(Jon Fleshman is assigned to the Public Affairs Office of U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza.)