At night, Sgt. Shawn Antonucci's young daughters snuggle up against pillow cases imprinted with his photograph.
His wife says she tries to keep the girls busy with activities at church and trips to the park, but it is on days like Thanksgiving and birthdays that they miss him most.
Antonucci, a member of the Florida National Guard, is serving in Kuwait.
"It's been a bit hard,'' his wife, Dana, said.
"It's a challenge, but it's also been a good experience for us. You love that person, but you really realize you love them when you're apart. You miss the little things they do and just that person not being there beside you."
Jessica, 12, and Mia, 8, miss chasing their father as he runs backward in the park.
"I like playing with him,'' Jessica said quietly.
Mia, a live wire, was eager to add her bit. "I miss blowing on Daddy's belly at night and hearing him giggle,'' she said.
Their mother let each girl choose the photograph she wanted replicated on her pillow case. Mia chose one with her hero father holding a rifle.
Dana and the girls recently moved into a three-bedroom home the family bought in September. A small American flag flutters outside. Camouflage pillows decorate the couch, and pictures of Antonucci, 37, in his uniform, are everywhere.
Dana, Jessica and Mia's Thanksgiving plans didn't gel until this week. They had talked about spending the day at Busch Gardens, long a favorite family outing. They decided, instead, to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV, followed by the holiday meal at home. Dana's parents will join them for turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin and pecan pies.
Thousands of miles away, Antonucci, who was recently promoted to sergeant, will be pulling some duties and enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving feast on his base. In civilian life, he works as an emergency complaint writer in the communications center of the St. Petersburg Police Department. Joining the Florida National Guard was a dream come true.
"I've always wanted to be in the Army. I was finally able to get in when I was 34. I did a lot of praying about it,'' he said, speaking by phone from Kuwait.
"It wasn't really a difficult decision. Every other time I wanted to join, something would come up. Finally, the timing was right.''
His job in Kuwait is to protect the chaplain, a noncombatant who does not carry a weapon. He also helps the chaplain maintain the chapel and set up for religious services. With Kuwait a transition point for troops entering and leaving the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, he also plays the important role of helping to boost morale. He often visits soldiers and distributes care packages.
"One time I had somebody send me Pixy Stix (candy) and I was handing out Pixy Stix and that really seemed to put a smile on their faces,'' he said.
"Most of them are getting stuff from home. Maybe a few of them are still having a hard time with the economy. You can tell that their families are having a hard time.''
The position of chaplain assistant is a good fit for Antonucci, who said he was saved in 1996 and attends Liberty Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
"I'm growing a lot with it,'' he said of his military job. "The only downside is that I am deployed for a year.''
The biggest challenge is being away from his wife and children, he said. "I miss the people I work with, being able to relax around the house. It's the little things,'' he added.
Occasionally, it might be something big. The house he and his family were renting was put up for sale, which meant Antonucci and his wife had to hunt for a new place via the Internet. He made a brief trip home in July, which gave them a chance to look at eight or nine houses and settle on the one they eventually bought. Dana had to close on the house by herself.
Married for almost 14 years, this is the longest they've been apart. He expects to be home for Christmas.
She doesn't want to get her hopes up. "They keep saying that, but …"
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.