Sgt. Derek Walker lifts his 1-year-old son Beau into the air, balancing the blond boy on one hand. Over and over again, Walker thrusts Beau into the air as the boy giggles. There won’t be many more chances for this, at least for the next 12 months.
To Walker’s right, Paul Zapalac sits with his arms crossed over his chest. The words “I stand in awe of you” run down his sleeves. There is a small cross wrapped in wire drawn tight around his neck. He looks around the Natrona County High School auditorium, its chairs filled with men and women in fatigues, surrounded by their families, by chattering kids and well-dressed spouses. They, like him, are gathered here for the formal sending-off ceremony for the 130 men and women leaving Wyoming, the United States and the Western Hemisphere.
It’s Wednesday, May 8. In 24 hours, most of the soldiers in this room will be boarding planes and flying to Fort Bliss, Texas. In June, the men and women of the 2nd Battalion, 300th Field Artillery will depart Texas and fly to the Middle East. They’ll spend nine months there.
“Gonna be a lot of missing dads,” Zapalac observes.
Paul’s son, JJ, will be one of them. A former enlisted man in the Navy, JJ is sitting between his wife, Melissa, and his mother, DeeAnn. Melissa and JJ’s two young children, four-year-old Clayton and two-year-old Chance, crawl between and over their parents and grandparents.
JJ, as he’s known to his family, joined the Wyoming Army National Guard in September 2017, after spending more than a decade in the Navy. He needed another eight years in the military to qualify for a 50 percent pension. His younger sister, Danielle, is a sergeant in the guard — she and a friend had tried to enlist at 17, but Paul and DeeAnn said no. They told her to wait until she turned 18, thinking she might lose interest. Her friend did. Danielle didn’t.
Eighteen months ago, she encouraged JJ to join up so he could qualify for the pension. A few months after he got out of the Navy, he signed the paperwork. Danielle became his training officer.
Melissa is proud of her husband. She’s cried, of course, but her voice is firm when she says she supports him. In the time that they’ve been together — they met on a dating app in July 2008 and were married 17 months later — JJ has spent time away. He proposed to her when she came and visited him in Guam. (There’s a good story — she slipped and fell while running across a street in flip flops. Crying, she ran back to the hotel. JJ followed her, they went out on the balcony in the rain, and he popped the question there.) This deployment will be the longest they’ve been apart.
Still, the Zapalac family is no stranger to deployments. As Paul waits for the Wednesday ceremony to begin, he remembers when Danielle’s unit was sent to Bahrain. That goodbye ceremony was in Cheyenne, he says. All the soldiers in her unit sat together in the middle of the room, with families sitting in the bleachers on the perimeter. He leans over to DeeAnn and wonders why they weren’t doing that this time. Soldiers were scattered about the auditorium, sitting with family, their arms around wives, kids in their laps.
“Give ‘em family time, shut up,” DeeAnn whispers back.
Paul gets up to talk to a family friend, and little Clayton comes and sits in his seat. His shoes are little race cars, and his jeans are splattered with the anonymous stains of childhood. DeeAnn leans over to him.
“Remember when Daddy got on that plane?” she asks her grandson. “Well, he’s getting on another plane tomorrow, a really big one.”
Clayton wants to go with him.
“You can’t go with him,” DeeAnn smiles. From her wrists hang small elastic bands, emblazoned with various slogans. One is black with white letters: “Celebrate freedom.” Her phone case has an American flag pattern.
DeeAnn cried when JJ joined the Navy in 2006. She said the recruiter was like the Grim Reaper, coming to take her oldest away. But she and Paul are proud of JJ, of Danielle. They want Danielle to be an officer and JJ to join a police department.
The ceremony still hasn’t started. Clayton wanders off (when he returns, he’s barefoot). His little brother, Chance, takes the seat, but he’s so small that his body won’t keep the seat from flipping back up. DeeAnn holds the corner of the cushion down with her hand. Whenever she lifts her arm, the seat bounces up, briefly threatening to squish little Chance.
At last, the ceremony begins. Chance runs off to join Clayton. A officer takes the mic and jokes that NC Principal Shannon Harris is going to give him detention if people don’t take their seats. A group of Casper firefighters play bagpipes and drums as Gov. Mark Gordon and the unit’s commanders take the stage. “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays over the loudspeaker as Chance and Clayton babble back and forth.
A chaplain takes the stage and asks the assembled families and soldiers — brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers — to join him in prayer.
JJ takes his mother’s and wife’s hands. DeeAnn stretches her other hand, palm up, out onto the empty seat next to her. Faith is important to the Zapalacs. DeeAnn regularly texts Bible verses as good-morning greetings. Her phone background says “Jesus” over an image of the cosmos. Paul thanks God’s grace for keeping the rain away on Sunday, during the family’s last cookout together. They trust that God will take care of JJ and bring him back safely to them.
After the prayer ends, Melissa wipes her eyes, and the family says amen.