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Ex-NFL player, now with ALS, exhorts: ‘Relentlessly seek your purpose’

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IMAGE: CNS illustration/Liz Agbey

By Christine Bordelon

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (CNS) — As U.S. Air Force Maj. Justin Secrest organizes moving boxes in the family garage, his wife, Jennifer, surveys the kitchen to see what she can do without before the movers come in a few weeks to take their belongings to their new home near Kansas City, Missouri.

It will be the 13th move that the couple has made in their 24 years of marriage.

Frequent moves are a fact of life when one or both spouses in a family have military careers, and though the physical transport of their belongings to a new home at Whiteman Air Force Base is a manageable task, it’s the saying goodbye to friends that never gets easy, 46-year-old Jennifer Secrest told Catholic News Service as she was packing up her home of a few years at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.

The golden-haired mother of two adult sons and a teenage daughter in high school became misty-eyed when she talked about leaving the life her family has made in northwest Montana, the friends who will stay behind and the Catholic Church on base in which she has immersed herself.

“We say goodbye to a lot of people,” Jennifer Secrest said as she fought back tears.

Her husband recognizes the emotional toll these moves have on his wife and said he has built up some barriers to protect himself from the impact of the frequent change in assignments.

“There are some great things about military life, but there are definite hardships,” Maj. Secrest said. “It’s a strange life and it’s definitely not an easy life.”

The biggest constant the Secrests said they have had in this “crazy life that is the military,” is the church and the relationships they have forged with various chaplains along the way.

“Our family has benefited so much from the church and we’ve been very fortunate to have close ties with Catholic chaplains over the years,” Maj. Secrest said. “Yes, the religious aspect has been important to us, but the presence of the church in our lives has kept our foundation strong during some very difficult times.”

Frequent deployments have required the 46-year-old major to be away from the family sometimes for a year at a time.

Jennifer Secrest figures that her husband’s absences from the family total about five years in all.

The Secrests’ situation is common among military families, making the presence of the chaplain that much more important, said Father John Reutemann, the Catholic chaplain at Malmstrom.

The military chaplain helps families with unique challenges that don’t necessarily impact most people in civilian parishes, Father Reutemann told Catholic News Service during a May interview at the Montana Air Force base.

Frequent relocations, deployments, family separations, dangers associated with war — and at Malmstrom, the stress of guarding and being so close to the largest number of nuclear missiles on U.S. soil — are just some of what military families cope with.

Joyce Flores’ husband, Army Maj. Rufino B. Flores Jr., has been deployed to Afghanistan four times during the course of the past several years.

The young couple is currently stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where they celebrated his latest homecoming last December.

The dangers Maj. Flores’ war-zone missions have carried their own levels of stress on the young mother of three small children.

Though she is thrilled each time her husband returns home, reintegration isn’t as easy as one may think, Joyce Flores told CNS during a March interview at Fort Bragg, as her 7-year-old son was preparing for his first confession at one of the chapels on base.

“Being on his own for such a long time during the last deployment, I found that when he returned, he had forgotten what it was like to be a part of a whole family,” she said. “He was responsible for himself and his gear and his mission, and his day-to-day life didn’t include taking care of children, helping with household chores and helping the kids with homework.”

It was a difficult transition for Maj. Flores when he returned. He had to come to grips with the fact that he had four other people in the house who depended on him, Joyce Flores said.

“It took me a little while to realize that he wasn’t in that mindset and that it wasn’t automatic the way it had been after other deployments,” she said.

Joyce Flores also said that since she had spent the entire year he was gone taking care of the family needs, she didn’t reach out to her husband for help when he returned and he sometimes watched while the family went on with daily life, wondering where he fit in.

Their Catholic chaplain at Fort Bragg, Father Lukasz J. Willenberg, said reintegration is one of the biggest stresses military families endure following deployments and he tries to provide support when a mother or father returns from war.

“Soldiers return home, sometimes with different issues, and it can be a real challenge to adjust,” Father Willenberg said. “The combat zone changes them. But also, as they are away, the kids are growing up; the spouse left behind has to adjust to the new normal. After 12 months, there are two people who are now slightly different who have to learn how to deal with each other again, how to rediscover one another.”

Sometimes Father Willenberg provides these couples with counseling himself and other times he refers them to reintegration seminars and retreats offered by the Army.

“I encourage them to set up a date night or something special just for the two of them,” he said, “to get away and rediscover each other.”

The Catholic Church is invested in helping families stay together and to keeping marriages intact, Father Willenberg said, and so is the military, because armed forces service men and women function better when their home lives are stable.

Many airmen at Malmstrom deploy every other week to the nearby nuclear missile fields. They are frequently on duty for five days straight, staying in the field that entire time, then return home for four days in row.

“I would argue that can be an even more difficult deployment on a family than when someone is gone for a year at a time,” Father Reutemann said. “They are constantly in a coming-and-going cycle and you sometimes have a situation where one person carries the weight of the parenting.”

It’s almost like they are a single parent, yet they are married and there are two visible parents, he said. “It’s a strange dynamic and one that can create all kinds of difficulties.”

Father Reutemann has become a fixture at the Secrests’ home for spiritual support as well as companionship.

As the family prepared to leave Malmstrom, they naturally reflected on how the church and the chaplains have impacted their lives.

Jennifer Secrest recalled that when her husband was on one of his long deployments, one of her sons told her that he needed to go talk to the chaplain.

When she tried to press him to see if it was an issue she could help him with, he told her no and left.

It was later revealed that he was struggling in school and didn’t want to burden his mother, who had been left in charge of the family. But he knew the chaplain was a source of support.

“We would not be the same,” Maj. Secrest said, “had we not had that support that the church gives us.”

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