SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has a proud heritage of military service, with thousands of residents having volunteered part of their lives to represent and protect their country.
And while the men and women who wear the uniforms of the armed forces receive high praise and respect from most Americans, their family members receive little recognition for their own service when they are left to maintain the homefront while their soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors are away on assignment.
Despite the noble sentiments involved in making those sacrifices, the reality of being separated for extended periods can take a toll on everyone involved, and the effects can be long-lasting — even after the deployment has ended.
Two such families recently shared their stories with the Deseret News.
Jason and Letitia Comstock have been married for 25 years while raising five kids. During that time, Jason Comstock, 46, has gone from full-time duty in the U.S. Air Force to part-time duty in the Utah Army National Guard that included a yearlong tour in Iraq from November 2004 to November 2005.
While he was "in-country" stationed in the Middle East, Comstock said he grew accustomed to the routine and rhythm of life there, but he was surprised by how difficult it was to adjust to life at home with his family when he returned from duty.
"Now they have this stranger telling them what to do when he hasn't been around to tell them anything," he explained. He noted that when he was in Iraq, the job of being a soldier kept his full attention and helped keep him focused at all times.
"I was there to do my job, and I wanted to do a good job," Comstock said.
Contrarily, being back in civilian life was a major transition, and his markedly different behavior was noticed by everyone in his family, particularly Letitia Comstock and their second-oldest son, Mason.
"I'd been home for almost a year before my wife said, 'Hey you've got to go talk to somebody,'" he said.
Jason Comstock acknowledged that he had become a "drill sergeant," where before he had been very easy going and attentive as a father and spouse.
"Suddenly I'm needing to get work done (around the house), and I was telling my kids, 'Let's go, let's go, let's go!'" he said. "That was not easy for them. That's not what they signed up for."
Comstock said he had been noticing some psychological issues related to post-traumatic stress since returning from combat, including a time when he would drive home from work and see an old styrofoam cooler on the side of the road, and swerve away from it because it made him feel very nervous.
"It really caused my anxiety to go up," he said, adding that he thought it could be an improvised explosive device like he had experienced in Iraq. Of course, it was not, he said.
Comstock also recalled a time when his eldest son, David, who was 12 years old at the time, was upset because he wasn't allowed to spend time with his friends.
"I pushed him up against the wall and said, 'You don't know (expletive) about what you're talking about!'" he said. "Suddenly, this fairly gentle guy is now being violent. That's when Letitia said, 'We've got to get some help.'"
Letitia Comstock described the times when her husband was away as "hard," and she recalled the first time he went to Air Force boot camp and was also sent to additional training right afterward for a total of seven months. They had just one child at the time and had been married for just three years or so, she said.
"I was finishing up college," Letitia Comstock said. "For me, a newly married young wife, it was so upsetting that he was going to be gone that long."
Fortunately, she connected with other military families who were going through the same kinds of issues and leaned on them for support when she could.
"It was so nice to have that because I missed him so much," she said.
As it turned out, it would be Jason Comstock's last extended assignment for about 15 years, she noted, until he was deployed to Irag in 2004. During that time, they had four more children and had established a fairly traditional family routine, she said.
So when the time came to deploy to the Middle East with the Utah Army National Guard, "it was devastating," she said.
"I was devastated, but I was really proud of him at the same time," Letitia Comstock said. "9/11 had happened and we felt like we had to do our part. He was young enough still that we thought he could do something."
Though he would spend a year in Iraq, Jason Comstock also spent six months outside Utah doing stateside training prior to leaving the country.
During that time, they might only speak on the phone once a week and occasionally exchange emails, Letitia Comstock said.
"He didn't call as much because sometimes bombs would go off (in the background), and he didn't want me to hear it," she explained. "One time it happened and he quickly said he had to go. It was scary. We said a lot of prayers."
The biggest challenges to deal with in his absence, she said, was "being a mom." It was during that time that she was diagnosed as bipolar, she noted.
"My kids were dealing with a very manic mother at the time," she said. "If you ask my children, they will tell you that I was a 'very mean' mom."
The family had little "play time," she said, and the home environment became very stressful for everyone. Upon Jason Comstock's return, they worked hard to try to create a more "normal" environment as quickly as possible, Letitia Comstock said.
"He came back, and we just tried to put our lives back together and tried to ignore the fact that Jason had been gone for 18 months," she said. "As we (tried), we realized things weren't normal. I asked my husband to get help because I knew we couldn't live that way for the rest of our lives."
Letitia Comstock said she noticed that the formerly "kindhearted and nice" man who was always loving with their children prior to his combat mission was not the same person who had come home. He as much less patient and ill-tempered.
"The anger just got into everything," she said.
"I was seeing that behavior crawling into our family, and I couldn't live with that."
Upon addressing the issue with Jason Comstock, he wholeheartedly agreed to seek counseling.
Despite the intense therapy, Letitia Comstock said her husband has "never been the same" since his time in Iraq.
"I realized I had to change to because I was married to a different man than the man I had married in the first place," she said. "He had changed a lot."
Mason Comstock, 21, was 8 years old when his father was deployed to the Middle East. During the time of the extended leave, Mason Comstock said he was unaware of the impact his father's absence was having on him and the rest of the family.
"It wasn't until quite a few years later that I realized how my dad's service had affected me," he said. "At the time, I was too young to realize what was going on."
Mason Comstock said he came to understand that his family missed out on many of the traditional experiences of typical families.
"When he came back, he had pretty bad PTSD, so even after he came back, I felt like I didn't have parents for a few years there," he explained.
As he matured during his formative teen years and began reading more about politics, Mason Comstock said he also became disillusioned with the reasoning behind the U.S. involvement in the Middle East conflict.
"I felt like my dad had abandoned his family for something that, in the end, didn't really matter," he said.
Over time, Mason Comstock talked with his father about his feelings, he said, and they "have a really solid relationship now."
Jason Comstock said he still feels guilty about the way he behaved upon returning from his deployment, and it has taken some time to re-establish the trust he once had before leaving for Iraq. Additionally, he still battles PTSD.
"It's still hard for me. I still struggle with it at times," he said. "I'm broken. Thankfully, I recognized (I needed help), but it took me awhile to get the courage to get the help because I didn't want to admit that I had a problem."
After years of therapy and patienc, Comstock said he feels like he has "made it back" to a sense of normalcy in his relationship with his family. These days, the kids have expressed their pride in his service, and his daughter even wears some of his old military uniforms to school sometimes, he said.
"I like that. That makes me happy to see them being OK with my service," Comstock said.
Regarding the challenges military families face when soldiers are away, he said society should be aware of how much they support the military's ongoing efforts.
"We really need to recognize the sacrifices that so many families are being asked to make," Comstock said. "Whether their loved one survives that deployment or not, they are still being asked to make a huge sacrifice. We don't talk about the homefront and what (happens) to the people left behind."
Jonathan and Lauren Mason met in 2011, the same year he enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard.
Hailing from a family with a proud history of military service, Jonathan Mason is the third generation to serve in the armed forces.
"I would have been the first male of age (in the family) to not join the military had I not joined," he explained. "It felt natural."
Having served a mission for the LDS Church in Cali and Medellin, Colombia, Mason learned to speak Spanish and also is fluent in Japanese. Currently, a non-commissioned officer, his language skills are especially useful in his military operational specialty of intelligence.
The nature of Mason's job is to participate in training assignments that require him to be away from home for periods of varying lengths, he said, and sometimes the assignment can come at a moment's notice.
"I've left for anywhere from the weekend to four months," he said. "Essentially we're always on-call."
Mason noted, however, that most of the time there is advance warning. In any event, he acknowledged that separation can have an impact on a young married couple's relationship.
Having come from a military family, Mason said he's familiar with the circumstances and takes a pragmatic view of the duties of the job.
"I understand it. I've lived it already," he said. "Lauren is not from a military family and she didn't experience separation. It's a lot harder for Lauren than it is for me."
Mason, 27, said a recent talk with his father helped him better comprehend what his spouse was going through when they were apart for long periods.
"She was here expected to go about life in a very normal way, (going to work and coming home) every single day," he said. "She's expected to act as if nothing is different, but there's a very integral part of her life that isn't there anymore and out of the picture."
Meanwhile, he is forced to adapt to his new surroundings created by his job. These days, Mason is learning to make his wife's situation a greater priority in his own thinking, he said.
"Sometimes, I want to say, 'Buck up,' but that 's the wrong answer," he said with a chuckle, realizing the reaction his response could garner from his normally mild-mannered wife. "Obviously, that's not the right answer. But it's the answer I always got (in my family)."
Recognizing the challenges military spouses like his face, Mason urges friends and family of those spouses to include them in activities and make the effort to support them when they are separated for extended periods.
"Military spouses need a support system," he said. "If you know that a military spouse is (separated), try your best to invite them over. That's the hardest part — being alone."
Lauren Mason, 24, recalled that when they first started dating and he would be gone for long stints, "it was terrible. I would not recommend it."
After dating through her college years, they were married about a year later. Soon after, he was sent on two separate training assignments.
"We were married, but it was still go, go, go," Lauren Mason said. "I learned how to be my own person without him because I'm used to him being gone."
As a "National Guard wife," she said her situation is different from active-duty spouses who have a community of people on base who can offer more immediate support.
"I've definitely had times when I've felt really lonely," Lauren Mason said.
She leans on her extended family, as well as her husband's family when possible, she said.
"You have to learn to be your own person and know that you love our spouse even though you don't see them all the time," Lauren Mason explained. "You have to learn to do things on your own. (For instance) I'm really good at taking care of my car."
She said her independence has helped her cope with the loneliness, but her attitude has been to "just figure it out."
"When I'm feeling grumpy, I'll tell (Jonathan), 'I hate the Army today,'" she said.2 comments on this story
The isolation of separation has forced the couple to "make the most" of the times they're together, she said. Additionally, Lauren Mason said she has gained a better understanding of how much the military means to her husband.
"This is something that he loves," she said. "This is his occupation and something he feels he has a duty to. So I try not to speak poorly of what he does, even though it's hard sometimes."
The Masons are planning on possibly 20 years in the military lifestyle, she said. So it's something she'll have to get used to and embrace for the long haul, Lauren Mason added.
"He loves it and it's something he enjoys," she said. "I've prepped myself for it."