Memorial Day: Local family reflects on Iraq deployment
BEMIDJI - He missed the first two years of his daughter's life, so coming home from Iraq was a relief for Staff Sgt. Brent Steinmetz.
Brent, 29, was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2007, just two months after his daughter Mackenzie, now 6, was born and one month after he married his wife Tabitha, 30.
"Being away from the family was not as hard as I think it should have been because we'd been married for a month, I'd had a child for only two months," Brent says. "However, the more we communicated back and forth, the harder it got."
Missing the first two years of Mackenzie's life, however, was scary for Brent, he says.
"It was very scary over there because I thought I was going to come home and be rejected as a dad," Brent says. "You hear horror stories of this all the time."
For Tabitha, she says it was scary for her to have her husband gone.
"I didn't grow up in a military family, so I didn't have the knowledge and experience of the military in general or of deployment," Tabitha says. "It was really hard to be a good mom. When you're missing your husband and you are trying to focus on your child, it's hard to not have somebody else there to pick up the pieces that you're trying to keep control of."
Additionally, right before Brent was deployed, Tabitha and Mackenzie moved into the farmhouse they had just remodeled.
"We shipped her to the farm," Brent says. "I owned a 160-acre farm, so 'By the way, honey, here's the farm payment, have fun, I'm leaving.' That's basically, roughly, what happened."
Tabitha says she was now 3½ hours away from her parents but just five miles down the road from Brent's family.
"I was just getting to know his family so there was sometimes tension and there were sometimes hard feelings because they'd try to include me and help, and I just wanted to go to my comfort zone with my mom," Tabitha says.
Fortunately for Brent, his family and wife kept any issues quiet, he says.
"They actually kept me in the dark about it, which I'm very glad they did," Brent says. "Being over there, if your head's not in the game, if your head's back home, you're not only putting yourself in danger, you're putting your whole crew in danger."
Brent says he very rarely had to worry about home.
"The worrisome things were never told to me," he says. "I found out all kinds of issues that went on when I got home, but in the same aspect, there are a lot of things I never told her. Until the day I am done with the military, there are stories she will not hear, for the benefit of the both of us."
While her husband has plenty of war stories to share, Tabitha says she's not ready to hear them yet.
"In the event of a future deployment, I don't want those images in my head," she says. "I knew he was at risk over there, but if you focus on it and are constantly worrying about it, that's not a good home environment for yourself or for a very young child."
During his two-year deployment, Brent came home three separate times, twice for emergency leave and once for his regular leave.
"I was home for the majority of (Mackenzie's) firsts," Brent says. "(Tabitha) held off on feeding her real food until I came home (on leave), so it was fun when I came home."
When his deployment ended in 2007, adjusting to family life took two different paths, Brent says.
"With my daughter, the adjustments were very minimal," he says. "It was actually just relieving. On the home front side of things, they were tough for awhile."
Brent says the first three months were rough as he moved back into the house that he had previously only lived in alone.
"I moved back into my house, that (Tabitha's) been running for two years, and that I've owned eight years prior to that," Brent says. "Then we decided to move closer to Bemidji, and I think that helped us a lot with whose house it was because now we moved into our house."
Tabitha says having her husband home made her life a lot less stressful.
"It was a relief to kind of push off all the stress and all the worry," she says. "At the same time, we dealt with walking on eggshells. I didn't want to say something that would bring something back from Iraq, and I didn't want to just assume he was going to take out the trash."
The communication the couple had learned through a year and a half of long-distance dating and the first two years of married life helped them work through the initial struggles when Brent came home, Tabitha says.
"We just kind of sat down when we had an issue," she says. "And we still do the same thing. I think that's gotten us through."
Since returning to civilian life, Brent took a job as a veterans' employment representative at the Minnesota WorkForce Center in Bemidji and continues to train with the Bravo Company of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry of the Minnesota Army National Guard.
The Steinmetz family will spend Memorial Day honoring fallen servicemen and women, Brent says.
"Personally, I take a lot of pride in Memorial Day," he says. "I think Memorial Day has changed a lot in the past 20, 30 years. A lot of people forget that it's a day of honoring those who fell keeping our country free.
"I really feel that the respect for those that have fallen has been lost more than it should be. So it's a big deal to me."
Tabitha says they will continue a family tradition for the holiday.
"It's a lot like any other holiday; you need to give that holiday its due respect, and Memorial Day is no different," Tabitha says. "Every single year, even when (Brent) was deployed, on Memorial Day we go to the cemetery and are a part of the service with the taps and the gun salute. We have so much respect for that, and I hope that we're able to pass that along to Mackenzie."