Special/Signature Issues » Daughters Deployed

Odetta Johnson, 39


Service: Master sergeant, Army reservist since 1987

Occupation: Captain, Richmond Police Department

I'm a divorced mother of two. One of the toughest things about my deployment was to have my youngest say to me, "Why would you choose a job that you knew, ultimately, would take you away from me?" Well, [when I signed up] I didn't see myself with two kids, and so I had no idea there'd be a time when we would have to be separated.

I had just been promoted to lieutenant with the Richmond Police Department, and I told the kids, "Mommy's finally going to get a day job." They're like, "Yay!" but it was short-lived, because in less then four weeks, I had to leave.

They knew something was coming. They thought perhaps I was going to tell them I didn't have a day job anymore. My mom cooked. They love steak and potatoes, and we had homemade greens, and she made sweet-potato pie. I remember it because those are the things I missed the most when I was away.

They were quiet at first. I was kind of shocked that they knew a little bit more about it than I thought they would, because [of school] and so many people had family members who were going away. It wasn't a foreign idea that a reserve soldier, whose normal job is something else, would be leaving to serve their country in another country. So we started talking and that's when the tough questions came.

I explained that the same God that protects me here would protect me over there, and that I had all the training in the world -- because you never want to start something and not have the proper training.

They stayed with my mom the majority of the time because I wanted them to stay in their own home. My ex-husband, who's also a police officer, decided he wanted to try [keeping them for] three months, which was interesting for him, and then they came back to my mom.

This was the first task in my life that they couldn't be a part of. I sent some pictures. I probably shared more than I should have. One time when we were going through a congested area in a Humvee, we were hit head-on by [an Iraqi] national in a van.

For that brief moment, I guess you just lose your breath. The people behind us said they saw the vehicle go 45 feet in the air. They said, "At that moment we just knew you were going to explode." But when we didn't, automatically training kicked in. So for the people that were injured, we tried to do as much as we could for them until they were medevaced out. They all survived.

It's so funny, you know, if you get into an accident, you may be able to get two or three days off, but in a combat environment, they check your pulse, make sure you're not dehydrated, make sure there are no bones broken, and you're back at work.

I sent home some pictures. It was the Humvee where it was smashed and me with my leg hanging out because they wanted to make sure I was OK. I thought it was cool, but the kids didn't.

We had a Mr. Potato Head. I would take him with me, take some photos; we did the Mr. Potato Head travels. Some people had Felicia the Flower. One guy had a paper doll. Anything you can do to keep them in the process without giving them some tragic or horrible feeling about being involved. The pictures that I would send and the places that I traveled, they were researching on the Internet. Then they would look at those places to see if there was any conflict there.

Toward the end, my son had to have an operation where he was going to be incapacitated. My heart ached, but I made sure, even after they told me I could come home a little early, that I never promised [my kids when I was coming home]. It's a good thing I didn't give them a date, because I was caught in a sandstorm.

When you leave, you know they're one less person and it's hard. It's almost a guilt. And family don't understand. "Guilty?!" [they say] "Get on that plane." But you have a family there too.

Now the tough question is, "When are you going to get out?"

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