CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo -- Finding family members who are part of the same unit isn't an uncommon thing in the National Guard, but the Kosovo Forces 12 Multi-National Task Force-East mission has taken it to a new level.
Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and cousins have all found themselves as part of the same deployment. Some are within the same small sections, some are assigned to separate task forces, but one thing is certain: They're all in this together.
More than three dozen families are represented throughout MNTF-E, something the force's commanding general said was a testament to unit strength.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jack Cripe, Multi-National Task Force-East's command sergeant major, said the number of family pairings was unheard of prior to this deployment.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the mission – being that it is a peace enforcement mission there is a lower threat level," Cripe said. "The second part of it is that they volunteered to deploy together so their deployment cycle lines up together. This is a prime opportunity for them, as it will also allow them to be at home longer together."
Chaplain (Maj.) Maury Millican, brigade chaplain for MNTF-E, said the deployment to Kosovo was one that offered a rare opportunity.
"We have a unique opportunity on this mission to Kosovo to actually take family members," he said. "What I mean by that is that if they're in, they have a slot in the task force. There's a whole variety of family relationships that we see represented in the force. I think that is unique and new in the Army, and it's going to be interesting to see how those folks do."
"It's always easier on a day-to-day basis as well when people get to see family members," Cripe added. "It might be easier when issues come up to talk to a father or mother than to come to a sergeant major with an issue."
Spc. Heather Zimmerman is one of those lucky Soldiers who can do both – talk to her father and a sergeant major – at the same time.
Heather and her dad, Sgt. Maj. Alvin Zimmerman, both of West Fargo, N.D., are just one of the many families represented.
"It's very comforting to have a piece of home here with me," Heather said. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime to be on a deployment with my dad. We get to experience another part of the world side-by-side."
Although the Zimmermans don't work in the same section, they've both had the chance to see each other "on-the-job." That doesn't stop them from keeping each other company, though.
"We have more time, we bump into each other, we have more meals together," Alvin said. "We have more to talk about now, because we're getting out and digging in, doing our job. We're meeting a lot more new people with all the other armed forces that are with us. Not only that, but we're also getting to meet so many of the people of Kosovo."
This is Alvin's second deployment. He previously deployed with the 1-188th Air Defense Artillery to Afghanistan and said although it was still tough to be away from home, he felt fortunate because Heather was deployed to the same location.
"We've always been very close," Heather said. "I do seek his support and advice, as I do at home. I'm undoubtedly fortunate that my dad has wisdom and prior experience that he's willing to share."
Both father and daughter said that getting to Kosovo had been a welcome day. During mobilization training at Camp Atterbury, Ind., and then Hohenfels, Germany they didn't have much time to interact. Now at Camp Bondsteel, they could talk, have dinner and even communicate home at the same time.
"Our schedules differ at times, but we find times as often as we can to spend time together," Heather said. "We Skyped home on Thanksgiving together!"
Alvin said having a family member with could make things a little easier.
"I'm a firm believer that it doesn't matter who you are, everyone gets homesick," he said. "For a parent to be deployed with one of their children, it's really a sense of pride. It's great to be able to see your daughter work in a way that you've never experienced before; it's not like you can go out in the workforce and see everyday how successful they are. It's a thing that not a lot of parents get to experience."
He continued, saying how it wasn't uncommon for Soldiers of the North Dakota National Guard to serve with family members.
"We're a small state in population and we become very close with each other," he said. "As we have family members that belong to the military – to the NDNG and they see all we've done, it's almost like something that's catching. Even some of my kids' good friends – people they grew up with – are here on this mission. So I not only have Heather here, but I've got other men and women who I watched grow up with my children here on this deployment. It just goes back to our heritage; I would call it, coming from North Dakota. A lot of us coming from the NDNG get really close; it's like a second family for us."
"I think, obviously, they have the advantage," Millican said. "They're going to have those people on the ground that love them, present with them. In fact, I was kind of hoping I could sign my wife up in the Guard and get her to go along with too, but I don't think that's going to happen."
Two of the Soldiers who were allowed to bring their spouses are Staff Sgts. Yancey and Erin Demoe.
Erin and Yancey aren't strangers to deployment, having met during their first tour of duty with the 957th Multi-Role Bridge Company when the unit was called to serve in Iraq during 2003-04. Although the two didn't know each other well during the deployment, afterward they started to become close. They were married March 2009, after Yancey came back from his second deployment, this time with the 191st Military Police Co.
With Erin's upcoming deployment to Kosovo looming, he decided to do what many caring husbands would – deploy again so that he and Erin wouldn't have to spend another year apart.
The Demoes said they faced what many families did during mobilization training – little time together due to the intense training schedule made it hard to be a married couple.
"Our hug and kiss became a high-five on the way to work," Yancey said.
Erin said now that the tough part – constant training and conflicting schedules – was over; she was looking forward to time together.
"It was hard to be apart and now we get to be together," she said. "We'll get to do and see some cool things, hopefully."
As of now, the two are able to see each other regularly – working in close proximity as the Battle Desk NCOs for the G2 and G3. Yancey said that was just one of the benefits, another benefit was having a friend and confidant so close.
"Having someone to lean on is the biggest thing," he said. "If something were to happen at home we have each other. It's just nice to finally be together after a year apart. Even though the location isn't ideal, it's not like we're 6,500 miles apart."
"It's better here, we get more time," Erin added. "It'll be great here."
Positive outlooks like those of the Demoes and the Zimmermans go far in helping families deal with the stresses that come with deployments, and Millican stressed the importance of communication for all Soldiers and families, whether they were deployed or not.
He said although there were so many families present in MNTF-E, all the Soldiers were deployed away from families back home. He offered a message for those families.
"God bless you to all the families, especially back home who are supporting us, loving us, praying for us. Your support means so much to us – even if it's just a short little e-mail, a small care package – you don't have to do extraordinary things, just the little things make a difference, especially communication. Please communicate with your loved ones, the Soldier you love and care about. Support them and soon they'll be coming home back into your loving arms again."
"Although I have my dad here, I still rely heavily on my Guard family and feel honored to have met so many wonderful people," Heather said.
"The fact that so many families are represented throughout the task force is indicative of the bonds and loyalty that make the National Guard strong," Brig. Gen. Al Dohrmann said. "I am proud of the family members serving together, and will continue to emphasize the importance of family support within the task force and family support organizations that demonstrate care and commitment to us each and every day."
Check the following sites for the latest MNTF-E information: