Photo courtesy of United Through Reading

A well-worn rocking chair sits in the center of our sons’ shared bedroom. Even though growth spurts have made relaxing in it with both boys on my lap nearly impossible in recent months, I’ve had a difficult time letting go of the overlapping pair of body impressions that have been etched into the cushion over time. One belongs to me, deep curves left in the seat after long hours nursing, soothing and singing lullabies; the other belongs to my husband, a permanent imprint that gives testament to his nightly routine of reading bedtime stories to our children. Although we miss him every minute of every day when duty calls him to be away from us for any period of time, the little moments between bath bubbles and night lights is when his absence is felt the most. I do my best to take over the story-telling, but I’ve never been able to master the dramatic sound effects and character voices quite like he has.

Military kids miss out on 40 million bedtime stories each year due to deployment. United Through Reading (UTR) is an organization that was founded to recapture those lost moments of connection between parent and child by helping service members record videos of themselves reading bedtime stories to send home. This year, UTR is on a mission to give 10 million bedtime stories back to military families, and we can help!

Read my interview with CEO Dr. Sally Zoll on StripesEurope.com to learn more about UTR’s 40 Million Stories Campaign.

Today, I’m honored to introduce you to Cleo — strong milspouse, mom and environmental consultant. She’s here to talk about how UTR helped her deployed husband foster a relationship with the newborn daughter he had yet to meet.

Hi, Cleo! Thank you so much for being open and willing to sharing your United Through Reading (UTR) experience with us. Will you tell us a little bit about yourself and your family?

You’re welcome. I am so happy to share my story! My husband Alex and I have been married for seven years. We met while attending the University of Maryland in 2007. Alex joined the Army in 2010 and was an infantry officer and later a military intelligence officer and has served two tours in Afghanistan. I work from home as a consultant for an environmental company and completed by master’s degree last May. Alex and I were stationed at Fort Carson, CO from May 2016-May 2017. My husband deployed to Afghanistan in July 2016 and we welcomed our first child – a baby girl named Cadence in August.  Unfortunately, Alex was not able to be here for her birth, which was really hard for all of us.  But, one of the ways he was able to stay connected and do something really sweet for our baby girl was by sending two books through the United Through Reading program. He sent one DVD of himself reading a book in Kuwait on his way to Afghanistan. He then sent another book after she was born, which he recorded at Kandahar Airfield. I played the videos almost every night for our little girl so that she was familiar with her daddy’s voice and face for when he came home.He returned when she was 2 months old. Alex has recently transitioned out of active duty Army and is now serving in the Maryland National Guard. We moved to the Baltimore area so we could be closer to our families.

I am so thankful for everything United Through Reading does.  It really does mean a lot to families that are separated.  I know my husband thanks them as well.

 How did your family get involved with UTR?

A fellow military wife, whose husband had recently deployed and sent several books home for his children, told my husband and I about the program.  I later received a book that was donated by UTR with a description about the program at a baby shower I attended put on by Operation Shower.

What was Cadence’s reaction the first time she saw her dad on screen?

Cadence was just a few weeks old when we first received a book in the mail with the DVD.  I popped it in the DVD player on my computer, turned up the volume and snuggled her close.  My normally fussy newborn just relaxed in my arms and listened to her daddy’s voice.  Some tears were shed on my end, but Cadence was very happy.

What book did he choose to read and why?

He read The Sleepless Owl, because at that time Cadence was just a few weeks old and had her days and nights mixed up (sleeping all day and up all night) which made for a very tired Mama.  In the book, the owl is awake all night while all of the other animals sleep and then the “tired owl” falls asleep in the morning.

 How has UTR helped Cadence deal with being separated from her dad?

Since Cadence was so young and had never met her Daddy before, I think listening to him reading the book was very comforting for her and helped her to be used to his voice.  When he returned from deployment, she was very comfortable with him and I do believe the book helped her with that.

 How has participating in the program benefited your deployed spouse?

I think it was a way for Alex to feel more connected to me and Cadence.  I cannot imagine how hard it was for him to be so far away when she was born and I’m sure the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming.  This was a way he could contribute emotionally in comforting his little girl.

How has United Through Reading changed your life?

This program helped to create memories and a bond for my family that would have not otherwise been possible.

What advice would you give to a military family struggling to connect in the midst of a stressful deployment?

It’s the small things that matter.  Not quantity, but quality.  Be kind to one another and take time out of your day to think about ways to connect and try to think of the other person’s perspective.

What would you say to encourage the community to support UTR’s 40 Million Stories campaign?

I would say that something many people take for granted, such as a Mom or a Dad reading to their child before bed at night, is something that a military family would love to have and misses desperately.  Something as simple as a video tape of someone reading a book can make a huge difference for so many families and especially the children affected by multiple deployments and the spouse that is holding down the fort at home and cries when she hears her husband’s voice reading a sweet bedtime story to their newborn.

To help support the 40 Million Stories campaign and learn more about UTR, check out this brief video or visit 40milllionstories.org.

Before you go … enter to win the “Bedtime Stories for Military Kids” book bundle sponsored by Courtney at Home in honor of United Through Reading’s 40 Million Stories campaign!

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