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Spouses put service before self

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England – Audra Wheeler hugs her 3-month-old daughter, Teagan, before reuniting with her husband Sept. 15, 2011. Approximately 60 Airmen from the 56th Rescue Squadron and 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron returned home after back-to-back deployments lasting more than nine months in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Cory D. Payne)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England – Audra Wheeler hugs her 3-month-old daughter, Teagan, before reuniting with her husband Sept. 15, 2011. Approximately 60 Airmen from the 56th Rescue Squadron and 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron returned home after back-to-back deployments lasting more than nine months in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Cory D. Payne)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England - Staff Sgt. Michael Prince, an electrical/environmental specialist with the 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, hugs his wife, Staff Sgt. Ronda Prince, a supply manager with the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, his 3-year-old son, Aden, and their dog, Stuart, after returning from consecutive deployments Sept. 15, 2011. Approximately 60 Airmen from the 56th Rescue Squadron and 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron returned home after back-to-back deployments lasting more than nine months in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Cory D. Payne)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England - Staff Sgt. Michael Prince, an electrical/environmental specialist with the 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, hugs his wife, Staff Sgt. Ronda Prince, a supply manager with the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, his 3-year-old son, Aden, and their dog, Stuart, after returning from consecutive deployments Sept. 15, 2011. Approximately 60 Airmen from the 56th Rescue Squadron and 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron returned home after back-to-back deployments lasting more than nine months in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Cory D. Payne)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England - Senior Airman Matthew Wheeler, a 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons troop, reunites with his wife, Audra, and his 3-month-old daughter, Teagan, after returning from a deployment Sept. 15, 2011. Approximately 60 Airmen from the 56th Rescue Squadron and 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron returned home after back-to-back deployments lasting more than nine months in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Cory D. Payne)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England - Senior Airman Matthew Wheeler, a 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons troop, reunites with his wife, Audra, and his 3-month-old daughter, Teagan, after returning from a deployment Sept. 15, 2011. Approximately 60 Airmen from the 56th Rescue Squadron and 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron returned home after back-to-back deployments lasting more than nine months in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Cory D. Payne)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH -- Thousands and thousands of Airmen from across the Air Force are deployed at any given time. American Airmen sacrifice time with their families to provide humanitarian assistance to countries around the world. They sacrifice time with their families to help train partner-nation militaries learning to be self sufficient. They sacrifice time with their families to help improve the infrastructures of developing nations. These are all examples of Airmen putting service before self, and the list could go on for ages.

But what about the families? What about the spouses and children who put service before self? This is the story of a few of those families as they welcome home 56th Rescue Squadron and 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Airmen from back-to-back deployments that had them away from their families for more than nine months.

The Young Mother

Audra Wheeler met her husband, Senior Airman Matthew Wheeler, a 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons troop, at a comedy club in Richmond, Va.

"He was the performer, and I was the fan," she said with a smile as she held their 3-month-old daughter, Teagan, in anticipation of his return.

The couples' daughter was one month old when Matthew deployed. Being left at home became a learning experience for Audra. She was forced to handle every feeding Teagan needed. She changed every diaper.

"I had to learn how to be a mommy," Audra said. "I had to learn how to be without him."

It wasn't easy, but even home alone with a newborn, she knew she wasn't alone.

"It's been really tough, but people have been really supportive," she said. "People from his squadron would help with the yard work and sometimes baby sit. It was great."

Audra and Matthew ensured they communicated as frequently as they could, and they did it in ways that aren't exactly conventional in today's world.

"We wrote letters," she said. "I got a 20-page one from him a few days ago."

The Active Duty Spouse

Staff Sgts. Ronda and Michael Prince have been married for five years. She's a supply manager with the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron on RAF Mildenhall. He works electrical/environmental with the 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. This isn't their first time to the rodeo.

"This is his third deployment," she said, "and he's been on more TDYs than I can count."

For Ronda, she stays occupied by spending time with their 3-year-old son, Aden, and with work.

"I work and try to stay busy," she said. "I take Aden to the park and go bowling."

Ronda admits it becomes almost routine for her, but it doesn't mean she doesn't sacrifice personal goals every time Michael deploys.

"You get used to it," she said. "I suppose you learn to adjust, but I have to stop taking (college) classes every time he leaves because I have to (spend more time with) Aden."

The New Spouse

Emily and Senior Airman Adam Parker, a crew chief with the 56th Rescue Squadron HH-60, married in June 2010. She moved here that same month. He left four months later.

"It's a challenge," Emily said. "You're in a new environment, and your family's not right around the corner."

For spouses in situations like Emily's, the squadron becomes even more important. The 56th RQS came through with flying colors.

"The squadron's been really good about making sure I have what I need since he's been gone," she said.

Another thing that made her husband's first deployment since they married easier for her was the knowledge that what he does matters.

"His job is important," explained Emily. "His squadron helps rescue injured people. Sometimes we overlook the good they're doing because we miss them so much."

For Emily, she simply looks forward to Adam being home and being able to give him what he wants.

"He's been saying he wants pizza, so I'm going to cook him one," she said.

Though these three spouses are all at different points in their lives with different responsibilities, there is a common theme between them: they put service before self to support their Airmen.