Photo gallery: The best festive gift of all for Norwich military family
Archant © 2012
Countless East Anglian military families have had to find ways to cope with separation this year while their loved ones were serving in Afghanistan. CHRIS HILL spoke to one such family after their emotional reunion.
The heart-warming image of six-year-old Kieran Everett sprinting across Marham airfield to hug his RAF father was a perfect illustration of homecoming joy.
But behind this long-awaited reunion was a tale of the sacrifice shared by so many East Anglian families this year while the region’s forces were fighting in Afghanistan.
Sgt Chris Everett, 35, an avionics technician with II (AC) Squadron at RAF Marham returned to the Norfolk base on November 20.
During his six-month tour of duty, he missed all his family’s birthdays, the summer holidays and his 10th wedding anniversary, not to mention other important things that fathers are required for, like lost teeth, bike-riding lessons and parents’ evenings.
And on the home front, in the Dussindale area of Norwich, Sgt Everett’s wife Carly missed him for all those milestones too.
And despite their own struggles, Kieran and his four-year-old sister Kyara helped their parents through until the family could be reunited.
Carly, 33, said the particular low points in her husband’s third tour of Afghanistan were Kieran’s sixth birthday and her sister’s wedding, when her son stood in for some of the best man duties.
She said: “Kieran understood a lot more this time about roughly where Chris was and what the timeframe was.
“You have to explain to him that it’ll be your birthday, then the wedding, then Halloween, then fireworks night and then daddy will be home. He sees Afghanistan on TV and says: “Is that where Daddy is?” But I’ve always tried to protect him from the dangers of it.
“You cannot dwell on the fact that he is away because you have got to keep yourself together for the children. My routine does not change. I take them to school and to their swimming lessons and I have a lot of support from family, especially my parents and Chris’s parents and friends.
“But at times I felt envious that the other dads were at the school gates to pick their children up.
“In the school holidays there were family days out and dads at their children’s birthday parties, watching their children at their swimming lessons.”
Chris said: “It is difficult, because you are focused on your job, but you kind of resent your job at times. Obviously you want to be there for your kids’ birthdays, and it is important to you – to miss all those milestones in their life makes you a bit angry about the job you do.
“The reality of it is I’ve missed Kieran’s sixth and Kyara’s fourth birthdays and I will never get that back.”
Chris said he spoke to his family two or three times a week during his deployment, but the communications were never 100pc reliable.
“The kids keep it normal,” he said. “They have to go to school and do all the normal things. Carly keeps it normal for me as well. She has her bad days but she does not sit there whingeing and moaning. Even on bad days, she talks about the kids and what they are doing. It makes it as normal as possible for me.
The RAF sergeant said his fellow servicemen also helped keep each other’s spirits up.
“You become kind of a family together out there and talking about things like that is extremely important,” he said. “You cannot go out there and do it all on your own.
“When we arrived back, all those guys had been out there saw Kieran and patted me on the shoulder. It was quite emotional. They had all seen the pictures of him in his uniform and they knew exactly who it was.”
These are some of the family milestones which Sgt Chris Everett missed after deploying at the end of June:
-July 11: Chris’s birthday
-July 12 Carly’s birthday
-July 30: Kieran’s birthday
Although Kieran had been given a new bike before his father left, Chris sent him a toy Tornado for his birthday, the aircraft on which he was working in Afghanistan. The accompanying note, which read: “I wish I could be there with you” was taken to bed by its young recipient. In return, Kieran sent his father pictures of his party, which included a bouncy castle, pass-the-parcel and an inflatable football pitch.
-August 18: Kieran’s aunt’s wedding
Kieran deputised for his father to carry out some of the Best Man’s duties at his aunt’s wedding. Carly’s sister Laura married Andrew Jenkins, a friend of Chris’s who also works as a technician at RAF Marham – and whose squadron has now replaced Chris’s squadron in Afghanistan.
Chris was due to be the best man, before he learned of his deployment.
Carly said: “That was the most emotional day, as we were not even half-way through, when you can start counting down. Until then, you feel you are going uphill.
“Kieran represented his dad and wore this miniature Number One uniform and medals which we had ordered for him. He escorted Laura to the wedding and he carried the rings as well. When we dressed him in the uniform in the morning, me, my sister and my mum were all crying. He looked so proud in it. That was the moment we realised the significance of Chris not being there. “Everybody knew he should have been there and we really missed him, but he was not forgotten because he had recorded his best man’s speech so people could see it on video.”
Chris said: “I saw the pictures while I was away. Kieran stood there so proud and it was quite emotional, really. It was one those where I had to pull myself together.
“I could sense she (Carly) was getting upset by the way she was talking, and then the pictures came in the day after. That’s when Andrew wanted to speak to me, and he could tell I was welling up.
-August 31: Chris and Carly’s 10th wedding anniversary
Despite working in a war zone, Chris was careful not to forget this important date, and sent a bouquet of flowers.
While the family was holding together admirably, Carly said the physical fabric of their home was falling apart – with Chris not around to help fix a malfunctioning washing machine and the broken clutch on her car, which eventually required a tow from her father.
-October 13: Kyara’s birthday
Kyara’s birthday celebrations were organised by Jump for Joy in Rackheath, as her mother said she didn’t have the energy to arrange another kids’ party.
-October 25: Parents’ evening
Carly said: “I was very concerned when me and mum went to Kieran’s parents evening. The teacher said that he was falling slightly behind and that he was very sensitive at school - Chris had been away over three months at this stage. I was very upset as I didn’t realise Kieran was affected so much.
“After Chris returned, the teachers commented on how the old Kieran was back. Even other parents saw the change in him.”
Two days earlier, Kieran had taken his father’s medals to a school “show and tell” session. Carly said: “Kieran had to take something in that was special to him. He chose to take his daddy’s medals. He had to explain to the children that his daddy was a long way away and that he had been away for a very long time.”
-October 28: Build-up to home-coming
Kieran had marked on his calendar when his father was due home, but Carly decided to give the children a more exciting count-down by giving them both an advent calendar with 24 days to go.
“Kyara didn’t quite understand and ate six chocolates in one go,” she said. “I told Chris that going by the amount she’s gone through he will be home sooner than he thinks.
-November 12: Kieran lost his first tooth
Photographs of this momentous event were sent to Chris, and the first thing Kieran told his father when he got back was: “Look Daddy, I lost my tooth!”
-November 20: Return to RAF Marham
After the advent calendar countdown, Carly said the morning of the homecoming in the Everett household was “just like Christmas”. She said: “They were all excited, running around asking: “When are we going? When are we going?”
On his arrival, Chris presented his two children with homecoming gifts of Norwich City football shirts, ordered from the club shop and delivered via the forces’ postal service to Afghanistan so he could deliver them personally.
“I always try to buy them a present when I come back,” he said. “This year I decided to get them shirts with their names printed on them. Kieran is obsessed with Norwich City. I got the parcel about a week before I left, so that was like counting down for me. It was quite exciting.”