When Sgt. Zachary Haldiman returned from his third tour of duty in the Middle East, his youngest son greeted him with a question he’d been asked before: “So, how long do we get you now, Daddy?” his 7-year-old asked. The twinkle in the boy’s eye suggested Mom had already broken the good news.

“‘Forever, buddy,’” Haldiman answered, embracing both his 7- and 9-year-old sons in one huge hug. “‘Forever!’”

Sgt. Zachary Haldiman with his wife
, Amanda, and two sons, Aidan and Nick.
Haldiman recently returned from his
third tour of duty in the Middle East.
Haldiman himself remembers the scene a bit less cinematically. “I think he said something like, ‘Do we get you for good now, Daddy?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’”

But Haldiman’s mother remembers the reunion in full, glorious Technicolor, as a Norman Rockwell portrait come to life—and why not? For Joan Haldiman of Phoenix, seeing the oldest of her three sons, all Marines, becoming the last to return from an exhausting war was a homecoming snapshot worthy of an Alfred Eisenstaedt Life cover.

“They’re all back now, as of three weeks ago,” she says with a relieved sigh. “It’s been hard. For the past ten years, I’ve been scared whenever I turn on the news.”

It’s a feeling she shares with a majority of military families, who’ve seen their loved ones deployed over and over in what has now officially become America’s longest war.

With the killing of Osama bin Laden signaling a major turning point in the military action that began nearly ten years ago, families of service members are hoping for imminent homecomings similar to Haldiman’s.

But for servicemen returning in time for this Father’s Day, the scene may not be so picture-perfect. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on; some of those returning can’t be certain they won’t be deployed again. Others, welcomed back to civilian life with rampant unemployment, may re-enlist, continuing the work and camaraderie they’ve been building for the past decade. And those who are returning after long stretches away from home can’t be certain family life will pick up where it left off.

“It can be a challenging adjustment,” says Tray Romine, another returning Marine dad from the Phoenix area. “Your normal impulse, as soon as you get home, is to take over everything again — to pick up the pieces and go on. But that’s really not fair to my wife and my children, because they’ve been living without me for periods of a year to 18 months again and again. And for me to come home and just start changing everything that’s been working for them is not good for any of us.”

While Romine was quick to resume his previous job as an automotive technician in Chandler, resuming his household role has proven trickier. Recently, amidst some protests from his teenaged son and daughter, the 44-year-old sergeant signed on for six more years with the National Guard.

“It’s what I was built for,” he explains. “I just like being in the military. I’m really kind of lost without it.”

Gung-Ho Gone

For most of today’s military families, life changed one morning on September 11, 2001.

Joan and John Haldiman first heard the news of the World Trade Center attacks from their oldest son, Zach, who had enlisted in the Marines less than 18 months earlier.

“Right away, I started crying,” Joan says. “I knew he was going off to war.”

His brothers, Jacob and David, three and four years younger, respectively, soon joined him in the Marine Corps.

Between the three of them, the Haldiman brothers completed seven tours of Iraq and Afghanistan before each returning home over the past months.

Zach was the only one to come back with a Purple Heart. On a mission in Afghanistan, while transporting heavy equipment to an American infantry unit, his company’s vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb — in military terms an IED, or improvised explosive device. Zach suffered a concussion that kept him grounded on a base for six weeks while he recovered from severe migraines before finally receiving an honorable discharge.

He’d hoped to deliver the “back for good” news in person, choosing not to worry his wife and kids with details about the injury, which he considered minor compared to the carnage he’d seen. “Two guys in my battalion were killed,” Haldiman says. “Other guys lost their legs and arms. I got a headache.”

Instead, Haldiman’s wife received the call all military spouses fear the most: a message from an officer at Marine headquarters in Quantico, VA that began with the words, “We’re sorry to inform you that your husband has been involved in an accident.”

“I had asked them, ‘Is anybody going to call my family before I do?’ and they said ‘No,’” Haldiman says, with appreciable rancor. “But they sure as hell did. And my wife had a nervous breakdown, because it took another 24 hours before she could talk to me. Headquarters had to call my boss, and he had to fly in from another base to come get me, hand me a phone and say, ‘Call your family right now.’ That kind of pissed me off, ‘cause I was hoping to come home with them knowing zero about the accident. That would have been better than them worrying about me for the next six weeks.”

The Haldimans are a patriotic military family. Though dad John couldn’t serve due to an accident in high school that left him sightless in one eye, both his and Joan’s fathers fought in World War II, and the couple (who also have one daughter) had groomed their three sons to follow in their grandfathers’ bootsteps, instigating a rigorous fitness regiment and getting them all into scouting at an early age. Flags decorate their South Mountain home, and their family farm regularly sends food shipments to the troops.

But after 11 years, Zach Haldiman says he’d had his fill of military life, which he felt had increasingly put his own life at risk during too-long periods away from his growing children.

“The breaking point was when that IED went off on my truck, but I was already heading in that direction,” he says. “There had been a lot of injuries in my battalion, and knowing the danger we were in, it suddenly occurred to me how much I have to lose. During my two tours in Iraq, I was younger and pumped up. But now I’m 30 years old with a growing family, and I don’t feel that way anymore. I guess you could call it old-man wisdom.”

Baby Blues

“I never thought that I was gonna be the girl who had to give birth alone,” says Cristina Manning, whose husband, Chris, was deployed to Afghanistan a little less than three months after the young couple learned she was pregnant with their first child. “You hear about those cases all the time when you’re a military wife, but you never picture yourself in that situation. But now here I am, seven months pregnant, with a husband who won’t get to see his baby daughter until she’s three months old.”

Cristina Manning’s husband, Chris, was deployed
to Afghanistan three months ago, shortly after
the young couple learned she was expecting their
first child.

Phoenix high school sweethearts who finally married about three years ago, Chris and Cristina were already well accustomed to military life, with Cristina living on the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California during Chris’s first two tours in Iraq. They had hoped the deployments were over when they received the news about their blessed event last December. Alas, a few months later, the 25-year-old sergeant was deployed to Afghanistan.

Cristina says the two get to communicate via email five times a week but only get to speak by phone about once a month. “It’s hard, but you get used to it,” she says. “It’s better than nothing.”

It’s also better than couples had it during the last war, says another recently returned military dad, Army sergeant David Olivas. The father of two from Douglas, who came home from a year-long deployment in Kuwait last February, did his first tour of duty in 1990, during Desert Storm.

“This time around it was much easier, because they had phones set up over there and Internet service,” Olivas says. “Technology has made it easier to families to keep in touch.”

Nevertheless, it’s not exactly Silicon Valley. “At the larger outposts, they have what they call Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers,” says recently returned Marine sergeant Tim Arndt, a Phoenix police officer in the Reserves who’d been mobilized last May to train Afghan police officers in preparation for American troop withdrawal. “But it’s a pain in the butt to use the telephones. And you have to sign up to use the computers, were you get about 30 minutes to check your email and send some pictures.”

Cristina, now living back in Phoenix, where both her and Chris’s parents have been supporting her through the pregnancy, hopes her husband gets stationed at a post with better Internet access by the time the baby arrives, so that they can possibly share the moment together over Skype.

“If not,” she says, “it’ll have to be one of those things where I record it for him and send it on a DVD or a flash drive, so that he can experience it as much as possible.”

It’s not exactly the way the couple planned to have their first child, but she accepts it.

“At first, I was devastated when I found out we wouldn’t be together,” she says. “But it’s one of those things that you have to accept, because there’s nothing you can do or say to change the reality of the situation.”

Home Fires

Raising teenagers can be daunting for any parent. But Marine sergeant Tray Romine, who has a 13-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter, says it can be particularly challenging for military dads frequently deployed overseas.

“It’s especially hard on my son,” says Romine, who credits wife Tammie with doing the job of two parents while he’s away. “Because we’ll get close, and then I’ll get deployed again. And when I’m deployed, he doesn’t seem to find the words to want to talk with me, whether it’s on Skype or e-mail. He kinda shuts down a little bit.”

Veronica Farver, whose husband, Andrew, left on his first one-year tour in Iraq this past January, says dealing with angry teens is no picnic for the spouse left behind, either.

“They’re so used to having him around, and then he’s gone, and the kids react differently,” she says, noting that her young daughter has had trouble looking at family photos around the house and even sleeping in her own room “because that’s where her and Daddy would read together.” Her son, meanwhile, has been exhibiting “attitude issues. He pretty much closed up for a while.”

Romine says most kids eventually adjust to an away-at-war dad. “My son’s doing a little better now. He’s older, and he understands that this is something Dad needs to do, and wants to do.”

But other military dads, after spending so much time away during what seems like an interminable war, can come to re-adjust their own needs and wants.

“I’m not going back,” insists Tim Arndt, who spent seven months embedded with the Afgans, sleeping on the ground through freezing cold nights in what he now describes as “the camping trip from Hell.” With three kids at home aged 12, 14 and 17, Arndt has gone back to being a full-time police officer and has no desire to continue in the Reserves. “My first time around as an active duty Marine, in 1979, I had no family,” he says. “But now I’m in my 40s. And being over there is not a fun time at all.”

Some stay in service because of the weak job market for civilian work. “A lot of guys come back and they’re unemployed,” says Zach Haldiman, who’s returned to his wife’s home state of Tennessee. “But I was out of the Marine Corps for 10 days and I already got a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, repairing steam lines in the power plant. I’m making more money than I ever did in the Marines, and working less hours!”

Best of all, he’s not far away from home, and plans on spending his first Father’s Day ever this month as a permanently home-bound dad. “It’ll be great.”

Veronica Farver and her kids only hope that dad Andrew gets his first temporary leave around the holiday.

“We’re hoping he comes home around the 19th or 20th,” she says. “If he makes it in time for Father’s Day, it’ll be awesome. He loves fishing, so maybe he’ll take the kids to do that.

“But mainly, the kids know he’ll only be here for a couple of weeks, so that’s what we’re looking forward to,” she adds. “Just to be with him and take advantage of that time. It’ll be Father’s Day whenever he comes back.”