TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – For military family members who serve on active-duty, being separated from loved ones is part of the job.
The U.S. armed forces often requires service members to leave their families to defend freedom and advance the national interests of the United States.
The Gibson family knows this reality well. The matriarch of the family is U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Angela Gibson, 60th Surgical Operations Squadron flight chief of anesthesia and a mother of two with 16 years of service. Her husband, Air Force Master Sgt. Mike Gibson, 60th Security Forces Squadron NCO in charge of operations, has accumulated nearly two decades of service.
The senior noncommissioned officers said throughout their careers, the most challenging thing they’ve had to overcome is being away from the ones they love most.
“I met Mike in 2007 right before I left for combat arms school,” said Angela, who was working in the security forces career field at the time. “He worked in the confinement section while I worked in the training section. I provided him with some vehicle training one day. A few days after that meeting, we met up at a party where we were able to connect. He got my number and it all went from there.”
This all occurred at the Gibsons’ first duty station, F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming. They dated for a while but would face separation in February 2008 when Angela took an assignment to Creech AFB, Nevada, while Mike had to continue serving at F.E. Warren.
Six months later, the two married in Las Vegas. Approximately two weeks after their wedding, their daughter, Taylor, was born.
“We applied for a join spouse assignment but we were denied because at the time, no positions were available at Creech AFB for my husband,” said Angela.
A join spouse assignment allows married active-duty military couples the opportunity to be stationed together at the same installation. If positions are not available for both members at the same installation, they may be assigned to different installations within 50 miles of each other and maintain a joint residence.
“The Air Force will try to keep a military couple together,” said Cristi Bowes, Assignment Policy and Procedures section at the Air Force Personnel Center. “The most common hurdle to a join spouse assignment lies in meeting the eligibility requirements.”
To be eligible for a join spouse assignment, Airmen must meet several requirements, including having a minimum of 12 months of time on station or completing an overseas tour. They must also be able to obtain 24 months of retainability from the reporting date for a move within the continental United States. Additionally, the base the couple desires must have positions available for both service members.
The Gibsons spent the first two years of their marriage separated by 871 miles. However, they didn’t let that distance place an undue burden on their relationship.
“I would take leave every three to six months to visit them,” said Mike. “We also stayed in touch through video chats weekly.”
“It was great to see him when he came to visit and the video chatting helped ensure our daughter knew who her daddy was,” said Angela. “I had to record Taylor’s first steps so he could see them because he wasn’t there for that. We kept in touch the best we could.”
In February 2010, the Gibsons were approved for a join spouse assignment and reunited at F.E. Warren. In January 2011, they welcomed their son, Carter, into the world.
Shortly after Carter’s birth, Mike deployed to Kuwait for six months, marking the second time he would miss key family moments like his son’s first steps and first words.
“I thought he’s just missing all the fun,” said Angela. “All the potty training, the late nights, that was hard to get through, but my mother came to stay with me to help. Trying to balance work with life and ensure I had enough time for my kids at the end of the day was important.”
Separation is the hardest part of military life, said Mike.
“It can be really challenging to get the kids to understand what’s going on and why,” he said. “We show them pictures so they know who their dad and mom is any time my wife or I have to deploy. Getting them to grasp the fact that mom or dad could be gone for a while can be difficult, but we do our best to prepare them for those moments.”
The Gibsons know the challenges deployments can bring. Mike has deployed multiple times and Angela, who became a medic in 2013, deployed in 2016 to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, to serve as the NCO in charge of the outpatient clinic at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. Today, the couple is preparing their family for another deployment in 2019, when Angela and Mike are scheduled to serve tours in Southwest Asia.
Mike said communication is essential to making his marriage work and ensuring his children’s needs are met.
“Open communication within the family is so important especially in a military-to-military relationship,” he said. “It makes things easier and helps us balance duty schedules, temporary duty assignments, deployments and everything else. We sit down as a family and talk through everything. It’s also important for the kids to be allowed to share their opinion on things.”
The Gibsons will rely on their parents to watch Taylor and Carter while they are deployed. This will require the children to change schools during the current school year.
“The military life brings lots of change, many moves and that can be hard on the kids,” said Angela. “To better prepare them for this deployment, we took them to the school they’ll be going to and showed them around. The kids will also have to change schools once again later in 2019 when we come back.”
Dealing with separation, in one way or another, makes her children, now 10 and 7, stronger, Angela added.
“It helps them become more resilient when they face challenges,” she said. “Last year, I had to leave for deployment training and they asked me if I could bring them back something rather than being upset because I had to go. They’ve adjusted to a point where they don’t get as upset any more when one of us has to go.”
When Angela returned from her training, she came home with a toy shark for Carter and a toy dinosaur for Taylor. She said she and her husband do their best to make the most of the time the family spends together.
“When I leave work, it’s family time,” she said. “We try to make the best of the moments we have. We’ll go out and do things together, do arts and crafts or play video games so we stay connected as a family.”
Enjoying that time together is important, Mike added.
“It’s vital we never lose that,” he said. “You need to be able to separate the distractions and your job from your family time because one day, you will leave your job, but your family is always going to be there. I think sometimes, especially in the military, we can get so busy we can lose sight of that. It’s critical that military families do all they can to make the most of the moments they have together.”
(Information from an Air Force Personnel Center Public Affairs article entitled “Join Spouse assignment consideration keeps mil-to-mil couples together,” was used to support this story.)