JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
Early-morning June 28, firefighters from the 433rd Civil Engineer Squadron and their families gathered in the darkness here to say their goodbyes before the Reserve Citizen Airmen begin their deployment journey.
The firefighters are headed to an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia for a 6-month assignment. They will be performing fire protection duties for personnel, aircraft, cargo, and other installation assets.
While the Airmen loaded their bags into trucks, squadron leadership, administrators, and deployment managers took accountability and provided last-minute guidance to the troops.
“Most of these Airmen are firefighters in their civilian jobs,” said Maj. Leigh Barker, 433rd Civil Engineer Squadron commander. “One of the unique capabilities of the Reserve is that our people can bring their vast knowledge to the fight. They have Air Force and civilian training as well as a variety of experiences. We have firefighters from all over. They get calls daily, and that varied big-city experience helps them respond efficiently and effectively when in this capacity.”
While preparing for this deployment, team members were able to count on the support not only from their families and their home unit but also their civilian employers.
“I have an amazing employer; I work for the city of Seguin as a firefighter/paramedic,” said Master Sgt. Andrew Weertman, 433rd Civil Engineer Squadron assistant chief of operations, who is deploying as a fire chief. “We had an Army Soldier just return from deployment, another soldier is currently deployed, and now I’m going. The city does a red-shirt Friday to support the troops. They also send care packages. The citizens and the city of Seguin employees are very supportive.”
In addition to letters and email, families are usually able to stay in touch frequently through a variety of newer communication methods.
“To support the families, we have two key spouses, the chief’s wife, Tara Randol, and Catherine Robertson; they are phenomenal,” Barker said. “They have many tools, such as GroupMe and Facebook, to communicate with all the spouses of deployed members. The spouses can communicate with each other to ask questions and seek support.”
“We had planned to bring all the families together for picnics and gatherings, but we are not able to do that with COVID,” Barker said. “We have some special plans to help support the families of our deployed members.”
Pre-deployment preparation for families can cover many aspects. Some families make paper chains for children to mark the passage of time. The Weertman family created a deployment wall with a calendar, map, and clocks showing the time here and there. There is also a mail slot for Kason, the youngest, to put his drawings for dad.
“Hopefully, we can FaceTime, and that will be a lot easier for the kids to deal with this; to be able to see him,” said Ali Weertman. “I’m looking forward to that. “
Even with all the preparation, sometimes when the Airmen leave, it is still difficult for families to navigate the adjustment. The Weertman family has a unique perspective that comes from something, not all couples experience.
Ali, the wife of Master Sgt. Andrew Weertman, is a nurse. Earlier this year, she deployed to the East Coast to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That experience really put it into perspective, because I had never been gone from the kids for anything before I went to New York to help,” Ali said. “I was gone for a month, and it really helped me understand what Andy goes through when he’s gone. Missing your family, but also having to focus on work and make sure you’re doing what’s right for the people you’re with, while also caring for the people back home, was an interesting and eye-opening experience. I think that it helped me mentally prepare and gave me a better understanding of what he goes through when he’s gone.”
“I don’t think you can really be prepared; even when you think that you are, the moment they leave, you realize you aren’t ready or prepared for it,” Ali said. “It’s harder, I think, for the kids, especially at their ages. Our son will be four in August, and Andy will be gone for that and Christmas. Explaining it to them, even though Andy is gone, that it’s a good thing. We are very proud of him.”