Fishing. Ice cream. Family dinners. Movie nights. All the little things missed when a family is apart – that’s what Steve and Nicole Henry anticipate this year after decades of military service that have included deployments, transitions and most recently, three years in two different states.
The Henrys, who met at Osan Air Base in Korea in 2003, have served in the United States Air Force for decades and stand on the cusp of a new chapter as Nicole prepares to return to her family in Rapid City from her current duty station in Mississippi and retire.
The couple has been married 18 years and have two children, Cohen, 16 and Maylen, 14. The family has navigated the ups and downs of military life during the years, but a change of duty station from Rapid City to Germany in 2019 proved to be the greatest challenge.
After 6 years at Ellsworth, their two kids had established deep roots in the community. They loved the Black Hills. They were immersed in Creekside Christian School. They adored the hunting and fishing opportunities.
Germany was a shock to the system, Nicole recounted. “The culture shift was a huge balancing act, specifically for the kiddos,” she said.
On top of the culture shift, medical services their family needed weren’t available in Germany and Nicole ended up applying for a reassignment. They wanted to come back to the Black Hills, but a position of Nicole’s rank was not available at Ellsworth.
“So, we did the next best thing,” she said, which was to live separately for a while. Steve and the kids returned to Rapid City to their original school, friends and medical doctors. Nicole finished in Germany and then headed to her home state of Utah where she had applied for reassignment.
“We were already projecting for my retirement to be in the Black Hills and we didn’t want to continue moving the kids,” Nicole explained. “We didn’t think that was fair to them.”
In Utah, Nicole was able to live with her father, which saved the Henry’s from paying expenses for two households.
A year and a half later Nicole promoted herself out of a job and was selected for reassignment yet again, this time to Keesler
AFB, in Mississippi. This time, there was no extended family to greet her.
“Since being here, we have truly had to support two households,” she said, including her apartment in Mississippi and the family home in Rapid City.
Making it work
The time apart is hard. Period.
“I didn’t always have my better half at home to help with the kids,” Steve said. “It was hard parenting through the phone.”
Each in-person visit has been important, precious.
“The best was when Nicole came home and we were able to have a sense of normalcy,” Steve recalled. “I hated every time either one of us had to leave. It was hard having to say goodbye to Nicole time and time again.”
Nicole felt the pain of separation as well. Sacrifice, she said, is the only word to adequately describe the picture.
“We have remained dedicated and faithful to the greater calling we have as a Christian military family,” Nicole said. “God has continued to bless us abundantly and we are so thankful for that.”
Steve and Nicole have remained focused on the future – a retirement in the Black Hills with a whole, healthy family. Nicole will soon return to Rapid City for her final six months in the service through the SkillBridge program, which allows military personnel to use their last 180 days to train and learn with an industry partner. During the six months, personnel continue to earn military compensation and benefits. Nicole will work with Allegiant Giving, doing project management.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “The program is fully remote and will give me the flexibility to work at my own pace and schedule. It will be such a big help as I reintegrate with the family.”
In the meantime, the focus for the Henrys continues to be about purposeful connection. That means a lot of FaceTime, late night phone calls and long plane rides. Nicole takes in concerts, award ceremonies and family prayer through FaceTime, sometimes in between work meetings.
“She’s part of the family even though we’re geographically separated,” Steve explained. “I had to keep her in the loop because I value her decisions and input when it comes to our family life.”
Nicole said her advice for families at the start of a military career or facing deployments and transitions hinges on the idea of priorities.
“Know your purpose, know your why, and don’t waiver from your values or beliefs,” she said. “I always tell my younger Airmen coming into this: God, Family, Country.”
Knowing her two kids were safe and taken care of with Steve helped her do quality work in the military.
“Then and only then can I focus on my calling as an Airman, to focus on my job, the mission, and my wingmen,” she said. “I know that I am replaceable at work. If something happens to me tomorrow, my Air Force duties would be passed to someone else. But I know that I am not replaceable to my family. I have seen too many higher-ranking individuals retire from the military after sacrificing things such as family. When they retire, they are alone, and have nothing to show for the sacrifices they made.”
The plan for the future is simple – stick together.
Nicole is looking forward to hugs from Cohen – who is now 16 and gives them freely, she said. And then there’s a girl’s trip planned with Maylen and some friends. She’s also looking forward to simply being present with her husband and making their house a home.
Steve envisions the same – a catching up, and a slowing down.
“I just look forward to rediscovering each other,” he said.