Little girl thrives while both parents deployed

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • Keesler News staff
Behind a heartwarming family reunion is a grateful "Grammy." 

"Grammy" is Wanda Freeland, grandmother of 2-year-old Kiera Freeland. She left her job nearly eight months ago to become Kiera's primary caregiver when her son and daughter-in-law deployed from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., to two different locations May 5. 

Capt. Owen Freeland graduated from Mercy Cross High School in Biloxi and was active in the Civil Air Patrol at Keesler. He enlisted in the Air Force 11 years ago and now serves as a communications officer. He was deployed to Southwest Asia from May through September. 

His wife, Tech. Sgt. Andrea Freeland, is from Washington and enlisted 10 years ago. A paralegal, she served at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, through November. 

In April, Mrs. Freeland flew to Omaha to help her son finish packing the house while her daughter-in-law was at combat skills training. Her husband, Tom, who retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant 21 years ago, remained behind to prepare their Jackson County home for Kiera's arrival. 

Mrs. Freeland and Kiera flew to Mississippi, and her son and daughter-in-law followed with furniture, toys, blankets, dolls, diapers and two big dogs. 

The family celebrated Kiera's second birthday five weeks early, since her parents would be halfway around the world when the big day came. 

Kiera was embraced by family and friends. Her great-grandparents, Bob and Kathryn Lutz, live next door to the Freelands. Lucas Freeland, 13-year-old son of Staff Sgt. Wayne Freeland, a paralegal from Barksdale AFB, La., spent weekends reading, playing and caring for his cousin. 

The Freeland home was transformed from an "empty nest" to a beehive of activity focused on their granddaughter. Their two sons are in their 30s, so caring for a child, especially a little girl, was a new adventure. 

"Kiera moved from a crib to a youth bed," Mrs. Freeland remembered. "We had to establish language skills and learn what she wanted, needed and how to communicate with her. Here we were -- diapers again, bathing, dressing, feeding and entertaining a toddler, learning to work the car seats and strollers, loading up the diaper bag whenever we were going anywhere. 

"Constant vigilance ... we had to childproof the house and then some," she continued. "How do you get anything done? Then there's discipline ... and potty training!" 

The Freelands laid the groundwork for a smooth transition by enrolling Kiera at the Keesler Child Development Center in April, where she stayed while her grandmother worked from home. 

"Our first impression of the CDC was a friendly, caring, professional staff," Mrs. Freeland said. "The center was clean, cheerful and child-oriented, with fish tanks, hamsters, pictures, posters and a big play area." 

Theresa Reinsch, who's in charge of children's assignments and parent orientation, introduced Kiera and her family to Sadaki Lewis, Kiera's teacher, and Debbie Hendricks, the classroom assistant. 

"Sadaki has a gentle, caring way about her," Mrs. Freeland recalled. "She's been there more than 20 years. She loves what she does and even buys books and things for her children and room with her own money." 

Mrs. Freeland and the CDC staff soon developed a close partnership. 

"They told me about her daily activities, what she would eat, through potty training, assessing her progress, listening and advising when I had worries about a behavior," Mrs. Freeland explained. 

"I was also very impressed as I watched them settle 14 2-year-olds coming in from the playground, changing diapers, some going to the potty, others washing hands -- 14 little bodies going in different directions," she noted. "Dancing, singing, reading -- even how they resolved childhood hitting, pinching, biting and pushing -- and not one TV or video. 

"At nap time, they'd rub one's back to soothe him, gently coax a newcomer to sleep. They have a board with pictures of the children and their families at 2-year-old eye level so they can touch Mommy or Daddy at any time." 

The Freelands used many resources to keep Kiera close to her mommy and daddy. An Offutt mom started a nonprofit group to help deployed family members with free talking teddy bears. Kiera's parents each made a teddy bear recording so their daughter could always hear Mommy and Daddy telling her goodnight and how much they loved her. 

Another Offutt program enabled Sergeant Freeland to make a DVD reading a book to Kiera. She made similar DVDs while in Afghanistan through the USO, which sent the DVD and books to Kiera. 

Kiera's mom didn't have webcam capabilities in Afghanistan, but regular phone calls helped. 

"The webcam was the best -- we were on with her dad at least once a week," Mrs. Freeland pointed out. "Owen also made and e-mailed video clips. Sometimes he showed her a book or a stuffed animal and would send it to her, so I could show the video clip with the animal and then she had the animal with her -- that was a powerful connection. 

"With the webcam, when her daddy sent a kiss or hug, I'd kiss or hug her -- Owen would respond when Kiera sent one to him," she added. 

Mrs. Freeland didn't use the services offered by the Keesler Airman and Family Readiness Center, but appreciated the e-mail newsletter that outlined available services and activities for families of deployed members, such as pictures on T-shirts or pillows, parents night out, pamper day for moms, discounted or free tickets, meetings and morale calls. 

"I believe, with the prolonged and multiple deployments over the past several years, the Air Force is making a much greater effort to keep families connected," Mrs. Freeland remarked. "I found the Air Force to be one family regardless of the base." 

Kiera's parents arrived in Mississippi Dec. 4 and picked up their daughter at the CDC surrounded by hugs and tears from the staff. 

Since returning to the states, Captain Freeland has traveled twice to Shaw AFB, S.C., to buy a house, set up the household and Christmas tree, arrange day care and prepare for his family's arrival. They leave Mississippi today and report to Shaw Jan. 5. 

"They brought us a sweet baby and we're returning a beautiful little girl with a great big smile, happy personality and wonderful giggle -- she's grown more than three inches and chatters like a magpie," Mrs. Freeland said. "Our home and our lives will never be the same. Although Kiera has her family back together, her departure leaves a great big hole in our hearts."