Ambrie Liston sees the tears forming in her mother’s eyes. She leaves the fruit snacks she has spread out across the coffee table and makes her way across the living room. She presses her small hand onto her mother’s. “Mommy, you’re okay, don’t cry,” she says. “Daddy will be back home.”
Ambrie is sure because in her four short years her father, Army Sgt. Eddie Liston, has been deployed three times and he’s always come home. But her mom has a different worry on this day.
“I’m scared he won’t go to him,” says Shay Liston, wiping tears from her cheek as she talks about her 9-month-old son, Elijah. Elijah was 4 months old when his dad left for a 13-month tour in the Middle East.
“I think it’s harder on them because they do miss so much,” she adds. By “them” she means the dads serving in the military, the dads who are overseas for months at a time missing first words, first steps, first dates and driver’s ed. Missing bath times and bedtime stories, the terrible twos, the sullen teens and the times in-between.
Missing Father’s Day.
Over the past two months, News & Observer photographer Jill Knight spent time with three military families to see how they keep Daddy close.
The Listons are able to Skype almost daily. Eddie Liston calls during Elijah’s nap time, and Shay takes the computer into the 9-month-old’s room. From 7,000 miles away he watches his son sleep.
He’s been gone about five months this time. The family moved to Fort Bragg from Fort Campbell, Ky., right before he deployed. Shay Liston has spent those months learning her way around the base and Fayetteville, making friends and filling her days with the endless errands of a young mother. Sometimes it’s not easy to arrange her schedule around the daily Internet call, but she always does.
Ambrie sends her drawings scrawled with “I love you daddy” in the mail. For this Father’s Day, Liston will receive photographs of Ambrie and Elijah in a “DAD” frame.
In May, Capt. Evan Hoyt, along with dozens of other soldiers from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, returned to Fort Bragg after a nine-month tour in Afghanistan.
After hugging and kissing his wife, Hoyt picked up Levi, 1, and placed him on his right knee. Ian, 3, watched bashfully for a moment before his dad pulled him in close. Ian’s smile grew wide and he gently placed his nose to his father’s.
Kelly Hoyt cried.
“I’m just so glad they weren’t as big as I thought they were going to be,” Hoyt kept repeating.
Kelly Hoyt and the boys had spent most of his deployment with family in Michigan. She kept him supplied with photos and videos, including Levi’s first steps.
“I asked him one day if the photos were making it harder to be missing everything,” Kelly Hoyt said. They did, but he didn’t want to miss a moment.
For Christmas morning, they Skyped so he could “be in the room” while the boys opened their gifts. “It was a sacred family moment for us,” Kelly Hoyt said.
For Father’s Day?
“He just wants steak and bacon,” on his new grill, she said.
Kate Goolsby extends her iPhone out in front of her while she struggles to balance 3-month-old Nathan on her lap, holding his bottle in place beneath her chin.
“I can see him now,” says Sgt. Jon Goolsby through the video call. Nathan begins to fuss as she tries to reposition the phone. “He just wants that bottle,” Goolsby tells his wife.
Jon Goolsby has never met Nathan.
“I was about seven and a half months pregnant and everyone kept saying well, they’re not going to really send him because you’re pregnant,” Kate Goolsby said. “I told them yes they will.”
Jon Goolsby left for Iraq in late January. Nathan was born by scheduled cesarean section on St. Patrick’s Day at Womack Army Medical Center . The doctors allowed Jon Goolsby to pick the date.
“It felt like he was right there,” Kate Goolsby said. “He was cracking jokes and laughing with the nurses and being his normal self.”
The Goolsbys have one other child, 5-year-old Addie. She carries the phone through the house as she talks to her father, aiming it at various objects, making sure he remembers the things he left behind. “Daddy, do you remember this?” she asks, showing his favorite ball cap. She puts it on.
A map of the world hangs on the wall in the hallway. Scribbled above the United States is the word “us” and stick figures of a family. Below Iraq, she has drawn her stick figure version of him and written “dady.” Kate Goolsby says Addie is in charge of the map and adds notes like Nathan’s age and the dog’s name.
Before dinner, Addie clasps her hands together and rests them against her forehead before praying: “Please help my daddy who is so far away from me.”
For Father’s Day, Jon Goolsby will get a care package from home. On top will be drawings from Addie.
And, of course, there will be another phone call. Another chance to see their faces.