The Time Between
Alta Crawford is a bubbly 2-year-old (3 in January). With strawberry blonde curls and a pink patterned jumper, the Mountain Pathways student is a painter, an equestrian and a storyteller.
Ask her what she likes to paint. She'll say, "Pink!"
Ask her what she did last weekend. She'll say, "Horsies!"
Ask her who her favorite person is? "Mommy!"
But it's not mommy's lap that's holding her.
Mommy, aka Leslie Crawford, an engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been serving in Afghanistan since January. It's "Daddy," aka Shawn Crawford, who puts her hair in pigtails and helps her pick out that perfect shade of pink.
The decision to deploy was heartbreaking, but one Leslie felt she had to make. And Shawn?
"I'm proud of her," he said. "She's helping people."
Though it was only January, it seems like forever ago when Leslie flew to Afghanistan.
"It didn't worry me too much at the time," Crawford said. "Typically, at the beginning of her employment, I wasn't worried about her physical safety, just her mental safety."
As his wife started to travel in Kandahar and he heard rocket blasts during phone calls, the worry crept in.
"She puts herself out there when she travels," he said. "She is surrounded by three 20-year-olds with high-powered weapons... but I know that she's seen and experienced some very traumatic situations."
And it's hard to talk about.
"We went 52 hours without communication, and I knew that she was in a bad area," he said. "There couldn't be but a handful of hours that I slept over those 52 hours, and I knew that she was under a great deal of stress because she knew I was worrying."
Couple the stress of worrying about Leslie's safety with raising a bubbly 2-year-old, and you've got status quo for super dad Shawn Crawford.
"It's stressful for her to be away," he said, "but we are connected. We do Skype. We typically try to Skype every morning, so that Alta can see Mommy."
Sometimes it's a 20-minute conversation. Sometimes it's more than an hour. And sometimes a rocket attack happens, and the line goes dead.
"I focus on making sure that I'm available for her when she calls, and mostly that means mentally," he said. "Whatever's going on in my day has to disappear, and I have to be totally focused on her. The rest of the day is making sure Alta is healthy physically and mentally and is connected to her mom."
Alta's starting to understand.
"About two weeks ago she rolled over in bed and said, 'I miss Mommy too much,'" he said. "She actually said to my wife on the phone, 'I miss you. I miss you, Mommy.'"
It's a new feeling for the 2-year-old, who competed in her first horse show last week in Lincolnton, without Mommy in the stands.
But, as Crawford will tell you, his wife's work is saving lives and, while a 13-month, four-year-contract might seem impossible, he's never been angry about her decision to leave. "I support her," he said.
And so does Alta. "Love Mommy," she said.
Mommy sends Alta presents, like a sand bucket or a Halloween costume, but it's still hard.
"It changes from day to day," Crawford said.
And, while the pair received Department of Defense training for dealing with the separation, it didn't prepare them for the real thing.
"It's vastly different for the real experience," he said. "The spouse at home has to separate their feelings, their needs, and the spouse who is deployed is the most important person. Really, the role of support and helping to bring connectivity to the family is the biggest challenge."
Next week, Alta's doing something special.
"Going to the beach!" she said.
The Crawfords are taking advantage of Leslie's leave and hitting Nicaragua for some surfing. "Can't wait to see her," he said.
In the meantime, anticipation doesn't lessen the stress.
Thanks to a supportive community, though, it's getting easier. The Crawfords live in Todd, and, while the friends they have are "wonderful," it's hard to maintain relationships when your heart is in Afghanistan.
"There are some days where you have to say, 'Sorry, I can't talk to you, it's just too much today,'" he said.
The hardest part?
"The time between," he said, "between the phone calls, between the letters, the not knowing. Not knowing if she is safe."
The Crawfords, married just more than three years, met through their love of climbing. They're used to sharing their adventures together, whether it's trekking through Alaska or skiing down a twisting slope, and it's hard for Shawn to live life without her.
She's more than an engineer, a mother and a wife. She's an inspiration, one he hopes continues to impact his daughter.
"[Leslie] has taught me about compassion and empathy toward people," he said.
It's compassion and empathy that some critics of Leslie's choice lack, he said, and there have been critics.
"Typically, it's 'How can a mother leave her child?'" he said. "I don't react very well to that, and having worked in the construction industry for 20 years, my thought process is less civilized than some others'."
He's determined she's in Kandahar for a reason.
"Even if she's only helped one person over the past 10 months, that's acceptable to me," he said.
And, while he knows people will reach out on Veterans Day, "for us, it's just another day."
After all, he has a 2-year-old to raise.