Jen and Brian Chaffee’s marriage was born out of war. They met at Camp Shelby, Miss., in 2006 while in training for what ended up as a 22-month deployment to Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard.
Their first child, Madison, was 6 months old when Brian deployed to Iraq again in 2011. The day he left was the first time Madison crawled, and the day he returned a year later was the first time Madison walked. In the time between, she knew her father only through twice-weekly Skype sessions.
“Here’s daddy!” Jen told 18-month-old Madison when Brian finally came home.
“That’s not daddy,” she replied. “Daddy is on TV.”
But the fact that the vagaries of military life are baked into the fabric of the Chaffees’ marriage did not make it any easier when, Friday morning at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Jen Chaffee and nearly 700 other Minnesota National Guard soldiers stood at attention as their commanders announced their mobilization for another deployment to the Middle East. It marks one of the largest single deployments for the Minnesota National Guard since the second Iraq war began.
“He understands,” Jen Chaffee said earlier this week as her husband played with Madison, 8, and Ally, 3, on their 5 acres of land in Washington County. “He gets it. But at the same time — he gets it. He knows what it means to be deployed. He knows the bases where [soldiers are] being hit, being mortared. It’s more of a double-edged sword.”
The soldiers from the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade will head to Fort Hood, Texas, next month for training. Two months later, they will depart for the Middle East to provide air support across the region in the 19th deployment of Minnesota National Guard aviation units since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It comes at a unique time in America’s military involvement in the Middle East. When the Chaffees met while deployed more than a decade ago, they were part of President George W. Bush’s Iraqi surge. At that point, some 166,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Iraq.
Today’s American military presence inside the country is much smaller — slightly more than 5,000 troops are on the ground — and more mobile.
‘Anything can happen’
In 2006 and 2007, Jen Chaffee was going on dangerous three-day convoy runs around Iraq in her role as a fueler, during which convoys would frequently be exposed to enemy fire. In this mission, the 1st sergeant in charge of the 110 soldiers of A Company in the 834th Aviation Support Battalion will traverse the region mostly by air, making sure the mission’s fueling operations run smoothly. Instead of being fixed at bases, the brigade will go where needed.
But this deployment comes at yet another heated time in the Middle East.
Since Brian Chaffee was last deployed, Syria has fallen apart. American relations with Iran have continued to fray, especially in the face of recent attacks against Saudi oil facilities. While only 11 American troops have died in Iraq in 2019 compared to nearly 2,000 in 2006 and 2007, as Jen Chaffee knows, “anything can happen at any time.”
The brigade’s primary mission will be to move cargo and personnel in Iraq and the Middle East via helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.
“Iraq has a big opportunity,” said Col. Gregory Fix, the brigade commander. “If any country can make it as a democracy, they can do it, with their agriculture and with their natural resources. Right now they’re having some success, and that’s why people aren’t talking about it. Now it’s just doing the hard work of governance.”
Jen Chaffee has had years to prepare her unit and her family for this assignment because of the predictable nature of the current five-year deployment cycle. The two-military-spouse couple already know that roughly 10 months after Jen’s unit returns home from the Middle East, Brian’s unit will ship out to the same part of the world.
But family life is not always so predictable, and the couple are trying their best not to disrupt their daughters’ routines.
Jen is in charge of family finances — she recently sent a check to pay for the next year of garbage pickup and is putting everything she can on autopay. She has deputized Madison, a third-grader, to help with brushing her sister’s hair and picking her outfits. (Brian, who leads the Stillwater-based Echo Company of the 134th Brigade Support Battalion, has sworn to learn how to braid hair.)
This summer, the family took a trip to Disneyland, where Madison met Elsa from “Frozen,” and there’s a Christmas surprise — a really cool one — in the works for the girls.
This fall and winter, Brian plans to take his daughters deer hunting and ice fishing, and also to gymnastics and Tumble Tots. Jen is making recordable scrapbooks for the girls, and the family switched to T-Mobile because they heard that’s the most reliable cellphone service in the Middle East.
To help with meals, next-door neighbors in Scandia hope to have the family over for dinner a few times a week, and the girls’ godparents in Isanti will help in emergencies. Jen set up a cleaner to come to the house twice a month.
Still, her deployment won’t be easy on any of them. “Just knowing I’m going to miss stuff — birthdays, school activities, how much they grow and their personalities develop,” Jen said. “Maddie is pretty set in her personality. But what is Ally going to be like when I get home? And how is it going to affect them later in life? Will they be angry at me? Will they be more independent, resilient women because of it, or will they be naughty and get in trouble all the time? And will it be because I was gone?”
But she also knows her deployment sets an example: When you preach service, you got to serve. She just hopes she gets back in time to see Madison begin fourth grade next September. “I worry,” Jen said. “Have I prepared the girls enough to understand? Have I prepared him enough to take over as the sole parent, and keeping their lives normal, keeping their routines the same?
“Me, I’ll figure it out. I’ll be fine. But is everybody else prepared enough? That’s the thing that keeps me up at night.”