HOLIDAY — By midmorning today, Shaun Pelt will have said goodbye to his family and will be on a bus headed to Jacksonville, with photos of his children and a love letter hidden by his wife inside his duffle bag. From there, he will go to Fort Hood, Texas, and then Afghanistan, where the 34-year-old police officer will serve his first deployment as an Army combat medic.
Talk of Afghanistan of late is of ghastly violence, a rising death toll, of withdrawing and leaving and being done with that place. But soldiers are still being deployed, pulling out of their driveways at sunrise, everyone trying to be strong for the other.
Shaun Pelt wanted this; not to be apart from his family, but to be deployed. His story, he said, is not a sad one. "It's about serving," he said in his kitchen Monday, "and doing something worthwhile."
He was 30 years old with a good job, newly married with a stepdaughter and plans for more children, when he enlisted in the reserves in 2008. At the time, he worked in event permitting for New Port Richey. There was no catalyst, he said. Just a feeling that became a part of him. He wanted to give more of himself and knew he needed to do this.
"If I can save one kid so he can go home and be with his family," he explained to his worried father, "I will have done my job."
After boot camp and medic school he came back and still felt pulled toward a different path. So he worked during the day and went to the police academy at night and, in January, became a New Port Richey police officer. He works the midnight shift and in the evenings, his wife, Cyndi, 33, and children — stepdaughter Hailey, 12; son, Kaiden, 3, and daughter, Ella, 1 — walk him outside to wave goodbye. "Go catch bad guys, Daddy," Kaiden always shouts. He is learning to count and often specifies the number of bad guys that need apprehending. Kaiden, a sturdy, plucky blond, also tells anyone who will listen that his dad is his best friend.
On Saturday, Shaun tried to tell his son he was leaving. They were alone in the car, headed to the barbershop. Kaiden wanted his hair cut like his dad's.
"Buddy —," Shaun said. But Kaiden was focused on the things 3-year-old boys do, the monkeys on billboards and the sudden desire to get his shoes off.
Ella, the baby, wouldn't understand either if he tried to tell her, but she's been clinging to her dad more these past few months. Shaun worries for Hailey, who is like her mother, a brave face. Shaun and Cyndi have been together for 10 years and are opposites; his need for routine is grounding, her spontaneity loosens him up.
They went to a class for couples facing a first deployment. Cyndi was told to not watch the news out of Afghanistan, so she does not plan to during the 400 days her husband will be gone. She plans to stay dizzyingly busy with the kids and her job working at a church day care and writing Shaun every day. She will, as taught in class, keep her letters positive. "Know that we are going to be okay," she wrote in her first letter. Before her husband left she was already visualizing him coming home. In her mind they are at the airport and she and the kids are running toward him and he's there with his arms open wide.
"When he gets home," she said, "everything is going to be great."
Shaun and Cyndi are overwhelmed by the support of the Police Department. Officers have offered to babysit and mow the lawn and do whatever the family needs. Shaun stopped by the station on Sunday and saw a huge bin in the break room with his name on it. They've already started collecting things to send him in care packages. When he told Cyndi, she fought back tears but he didn't get emotional because he feels like he can't; he has a job to do, the answer to something deep within him, and the sooner he gets it done the quicker he can come home.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.