By Gretchen McKay

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Hurry up and wait: Soldier and family adjust to their new routines

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Nobody could have blamed Johnny Cieslak for bawling as his mother, an Army reservist, kissed him goodbye before leaving for a year-long deployment in a far-away country.

The stiff upper lip many military families pride themselves on doesn’t come easily to an 8-year-old.

Four months later, the waterworks have pretty much dried up. The only time the Ben Avon youngster, who on Wednesday starts third grade at Avonworth Elementary, gets weepy about his mom being in Afghanistan’s war zone is when he’s overly tired, said his father, Jeff.

“Summer’s hard in that it’s pretty open, and we have to schedule to keep busy,” admitted Mr. Cieslak, who’s been a stay-home dad since Johnny was born in 2003. “But generally, we’re making it through.”

PG VIDEO: HURRY UP AND WAIT

Johnny and his big sister, Cara, have gotten so used to their mom being half-way around the globe that when Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak talks with her family by Skype — something they attempt several times a week — the kids sometimes don’t stick around. They simply wave or blow kisses as they pass her face on the computer screen.

Mom might be out of sight, in a time zone nine hours ahead of Pittsburgh. But she’s never out of mind, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. Skype, Facebook, text messaging, journaling on Blogspot … they all help military families such as the Cieslaks stay intimately connected when they’re out of country. It’s so easy to reach out and touch a loved one, in fact, that Mr. Cieslak brings his laptop to neighborhood parties so his wife can join in the fun.

The first time the 44-year-old engineer deployed with the Army Reserves — to Kuwait in 2003 when the kids were still babies — her only real means of communicating with home was through email, letters and phone calls. Fast-forward to May 31, when she was able to talk with her kids’ classmates at Avonworth just before the school year ended. There she was, larger than life in her fatigues, on a smartboard in Gail Lipchak’s second-grade classroom, patiently fielding questions about daily life on a U.S. military compound in the Afghan capital of Kabul. They came fast and furious:

Is there a lot of barbed wire?

“Yes, and a lot of Texas barriers, too.”

How’s the weather?

“Really hot, and really windy. And it’s brown all the time and kind of dusty, because it doesn’t rain here like in Pittsburgh.”

What’s in the place you stay?

“There’s two bunk beds and a metal locker, and a chair I have to share because there’s not a lot of room.”

Are you safe?

“Most of the time, because we work in concrete buildings with no windows and there’s a guard tower on every corner.”

And from Johnny, just before Mr. Cieslak wrapped up the half-hour rap session:

On a scale of 1 to a million, how much do you love me?

“To infinity and beyond!” his mother immediately responded with a joyful laugh.

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

Battlefield road show

If only military life was as easy as a Q&A with a roomful of second-graders.

It would be six weeks before Lt. Col. Cieslak settled into a routine and felt she had a handle on her new job in Kabul, mainly because there were so many people to meet, and government moves at a crawl. Her official title is “Deputy Chief of Plans & Programs for the Joint Engineer of US Forces-Afghanistan,” which means she’s responsible for overseeing all engineering operations across the country — planning, logistics, human resources and operations. Troops building a new bridge or tearing down an old building? She tells the big guys how to do it.

Owner since 2005 of a Pittsburgh-based engineering and consulting firm that provides construction management, the Penn State grad is used to tackling complex problems. Still, it’s been tough making the transition from civilian to military life, from being someone in charge, to a cog in a frustratingly slow wheel. As she blogged at the end of May, “I’m pretty low on the totem pole here.”

It didn’t help those first few weeks being jet-lagged, and unaccustomed to the high altitude (6,000 feet above sea level, compared to Pittsburgh’s 770). Then, as she got more acclimated to the seven-day work week, she had to keep an eye peeled for scorpions, camel spiders and gravel that threatens to chew through your flip flops on the way to the shower. And don’t forget about indirect fire from rockets and mortars.

Also unsettling is the fact that each time she travels off base, she has to put on full-body armor, lock a magazine in her gun’s chamber and get a safety brief from the drive team — even if it’s just to the “green zone” a few miles away. Afghanistan still has a high threat of terrorism, and no part of the country is immune from danger.

“Sometimes preparing for a trip off base takes longer than the trip itself,” she said during a Skype interview last week.

It’s definitely riskier than being a “fobbit,” a term used to describe the non-combat soldiers who spend most of their time on FOBs, or forward operating bases. Her family is relieved to know she makes those trips in an armored SUV and/or helicopter only about once a month. Her husband is the only family member who knows beforehand about such trips.

“I try not to think about her safety because there’s nothing I can do about it,” admitted Mr. Cieslak, who any time his wife is off-base simply tells the kids she’s “unavailable” for a few days.

She’s not complaining: Some of her best moments in Afghanistan have come during nail-biting travel outside the wire, when she’s gotten to experience different cultures and unexpectedly beautiful places. During one trip to a base being built for the Afghan Air Force, she stayed in a transient tent. Between the roar of the generator and the whistle of the whipping wind, it felt like a 747 was taking off in her head, she said. The rural night sky made up for it, though.

“Having spent my whole life on the East Coast, I didn’t know so many stars existed,” she blogged on July 1. “It is absolutely incredible and breath-taking.”

The ones in real danger, she noted, are the combat soldiers who have to go on patrol, clear the road of land mines or man the checkpoints — magnets for Taliban attacks.

The biggest downside to deployment, besides missing her family, is the monotony. There’s always something to do, but it’s the same something: work, read, play cards, exercise, sleep, work some more. She has good days followed by those when everyone — including her roommate and good friend Maj. Tracy Coleman — gets on her nerves and the only thing on her mind is: What am I doing here?

But mostly, it hasn’t been as terrible as she expected.

“I’m good,” she insisted.

Her business, Chronicle Consulting, is another story.

Even though many plans were laid out before she left and she stays in touch with clients through phone calls and the Internet, it’s been anything but smooth sailing. She’s had to let one of six employees go.

“Sometimes deployment isn’t a good fit for the client,” she acknowledged with a sigh, adding, “Nobody likes a call in the middle of the night from Afghanistan.”

She can’t worry about it too much because she’s got “more important stuff” on her plate. But like any sole proprietor hungry for business, she’s keeping her fingers crossed.

 

Business as usual

Mr. Cieslak also has see-sawed through the summer, though as the child-care provider for the past eight years, the challenge has been more about finding ways to keep the kids occupied than having to learn how to cook, clean house or do laundry. In comparison to his wife’s last deployment, this one has been a relative breeze, he said, as the 24/7 demands of infants and toddlers aren’t weighing him down.

Single parenthood has its moments: Every time Johnny or Cara has a need, he’s the one who has to figure out how to fulfill it, “or tell them no.”

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Since school let out in early June, the family has bought a new car, gone on vacation in Ohio and Michigan and logged countless hours at swim team practice. Mr. Cieslak, who’s a den leader with Mt. Nebo’s Boy Scout Pack 321, also spent several days tent camping at Heritage Reservation in Ligonier with Johnny, and on Sunday evenings hosted a Harry Potter film festival in his garage. Popcorn from a new popcorn machine was included.

They also got a much-wanted dog, an adorable poodle-mix named Simon from a shelter in Westmoreland County. In all, your typical summer vacation kind of stuff.

The only external sign anything is amiss at the Cieslaks is a Blue Star flag hanging in the front window, a subtle shout-out to passers-by that someone who lives here is in active military service.

Given his age and the fact he’s a sensitive kid, Johnny probably has had the roughest time with the deployment. Skyping is great but not perfect, and putting Mom on speaker phone while he plays on the computer leads to a more spontaneous flow of conversation. They’re hoping Lego Universe, which the pair just started playing together online, will prove a better way of staying in touch.

Communicating by phone or Skype has also been tough for Mr. Cieslak, whose sarcastic take on life doesn’t always come off right. They’ve discovered texting works better: he can be funny, and she doesn’t sound like she’s nagging. They also love Words With Friends, the iPhone based crossword game.

Cara, meanwhile, has blossomed in her mother’s absence. Being the only girl in the house has allowed the 10-year-old to step out of her mother’s shadow and show she not only inherited her strong personality but can put it to good use when needed.

One example is the kids’ visit last month to their maternal grandparents’ house in Chadds Ford. Johnny didn’t like being out of his comfort zone one bit, and became desperately homesick.

“I want you to come and pick me up,” he wailed in an email to his father on Day 2. “Please come. I’m getting my feelings hurt without home.” A string of frownie-face emoticons followed.

It was Cara who mediated, suggesting Dad come a day early to help Johnny make it through the week.

“She’s taking more responsibility,” said Mr. Cieslak. “She does try to step in and take care of her brother.”

So who’s taking care of him?

“I’m fine,” he said. “I know she’s still there.”

Soon, she’ll be here. At the beginning of October, when she’s halfway through her tour, Lt. Col. Cieslak will return to Pittsburgh for two weeks of leave. It’s a reunion that can’t come a moment too soon.

What she’s missed most since being deployed to Afghanistan — besides the physical touch of hugs and cuddling with the family — are the things that are the fabric of daily life but which most people take for granted: sitting on the front stoop, relaxing with neighbors on the porch and having it turn into a barbecue or impromptu happy hour, playing hide-n-seek with kids in the backyard.

That, and the background noise of “being together.”

“Having your mother gone for a year is a big thing, but knowing she’s coming back, that makes a big difference” for her children, said Mr. Cieslak.