LA CROSSE, Wis. -- It was late February when we last saw the Ehlers family of La Crosse on perhaps the hardest day of their lives. Husband, father and service member Doug Ehlers was boarding a plane bound for Kuwait to begin his 13 month deployment. "It was really grueling. Not only saying goodbye to him, but watching how sad the girls were."
Often times in the media we see the bookends of a military deployment: the sad departure and the happy return. It's not often you get a look at the days in between that are the real challenge. "We've had a lot of issues with the kids just trying to get through this. So we've been doing counseling and seen different therapists. You just watch them and they cry and there's nothing you can do about it. They don't even want to talk to him because it just makes them sad.
Karen has done her best to try and mask some of their sadness by planning activities and incentives throughout his leave. "We're trying to stay busy. The busier the better. We got the kitten in less than a week after he left. And now they're pushing for another one!"
The Ehlers are like so many military families, struggling to find a new normal with one part of the family equation absent. But Karen is finding 'missing' Doug is only half the battle.
"It started off pretty rough. With in a week, the truck wasn't working, then the washing machine broke and I lost my wallet. And the kids are sad...then my dad had open heart surgery. Then his mom had to have open heart surgery. Could any of this just happened next year!? I thought, 'I'm a tough lady, I can do it.' But you don't realize how much work this other person in your life does until they're gone. Trying to keep the house going and the laundry. He always did a lot of that stuff, so he would come home and clean and do the laundry and I would come home and it would be done. And now I come home and it's still a mess. So one week, I've got it and the next week it falls apart. Then the next week I've got it again."
Thankfully, Karen and the girls have discovered that in tough times - family, friends and sometimes even strangers are willing to lend a hand. No where was that more apparent than the spring clean up day earlier this year. "We have such a huge yard and so much outside work to be done and I'm not even keeping up with the inside work so I was like AHHHH!"
"Karen has been a teacher for two of my girls and with Doug being gone - it's a lot. I know she's been overwhelmed so we're trying to help out. "
My whole garden, which was overgrown, is completely cleared. All my trees are being trimmed. Washing my windows and putting screens on, that's being done."
"I've got 4 kids...so teaching them that because someone else is making a huge sacrifice. Coming out for a morning, that's something simple we can do. I want my kids to understand how important it is to help other people."
"I'm constantly, constantly lifted and carried by other people. it's amazing. Every time people help me, it just lifts me up. I'm always surrounded by these people. Every time I've had a bad day...somebody helps me or takes my kids so I can do something. I'm so thankful. I'm so lucky. They're just giving from the heart. I feel so, so lucky."
It certainly hasn't been an easy past few months. "It's a lot harder than I thought it would be." But everyday that passes gets them one day closer to the reunion they are so longing for.