Katherine Gentry cherishes the days when her husband, National Guard Lt. Col. John Gentry, is around to bond with her and watch their two children grow and play.
She knew being married to a guardsmen meant he'd be called to serve his country and wouldn't always be at home. Ten years ago, she would never have predicted how many times Uncle Sam would come calling.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gentry, was deployed not once, but three times.
In 2003, he was sent to North Carolina to support security efforts outside of two military bases. In 2005, he was sent to Iraq to identify enemy targets as a field artillery officer, and in 2009 was stationed in Afghanistan where he helped train the country's army and police force.
Gentry first became a soldier while in college at a time when there were few conflicts that required the National Guard to step in, Katherine said.
“Truly a deployment like this was a foreign concept,” Katherine said. “It just never happened before.”
Gentry, who is the executive director of the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department, remembers listening as the events of 9/11 unfolded while he was driving to work.
“I remember exactly where I was when the first tower fell," he said. "I knew at that point in time this was pretty serious and had no idea at that point in time I'd have three deployments later.”
Each time Gentry left home, Katherine did her best to manage stress. She kept up with her husband through email and a dedicated military phoneline. Sometimes the family used Skype to catch up and talk about their days.
“I tried to maintain as much normalcy as I could for our children,” Katherine said. “I tried to make Christmas better, the birthdays a little special as if he was there. It was very hard on me, but I tried not to have it show just how hard it was for my girls' sake.”
Multiple deployments have become the norm for many of the 2.2 million U.S. service men and women who have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
As of 2009, nearly 800,000 members of the military had served overseas more than once, according to the Marine Corps Times.
Gentry has given up a lot each time he's had to leave his home in Bishop. In three years, he's missed nine birthdays, three anniversaries, Christmas and Thanksgiving.
“From a family perspective, you have a tendency to realize how much your family means to you when you're away from them in a situation like that,” Gentry said. “You also realize how important your relationship with your wife is, not only the day-to-day managing your typical affairs, but also the bond with your spouse. She had to be a single mother for three years over that time span, and I think she learned to have a lot more respect for those single parents that are out there, given the situation.”
Since Gentry's been home, family life has felt more complete, but there's always a possibility he could be called back for another mission, he said.
Several guardsmen have had four deployments or more, Gentry said.
"Just like any other National Guardsman, while you're wearing a uniform and your unit gets a mobilization order, you can get called up again."
At the Oconee County Recreation Department, Gentry walks past a special marker – athat's slated to be dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Gentry says it's a constant reminder why he serves in the National Guard.
“Anytime I look at it, it's humbling just to know what it represents,” Gentry said. "To me, that piece of steel represents all that occurred on that day. “It's almost somewhat of a feeling – you feel that piece of iron and you feel the pain that has gone through that, from that piece.”