CLEARWATER — Look around. Your neighbors are likely firefighters, teachers, doctors, lawyers, parents and grandmas and grandpas. Look closer. Hundreds of people from the Tampa Bay area are also soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and members of the Coast Guard serving in the Florida National Guard or Reserves. About 3,100 Guard and Reserve troops from Florida are deployed to places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. At least 300 are from units based locally. That number is set to go way up next year, when 3,500 members of the 53rd Brigade Combat Team in Tampa will head to Afghanistan.
"We've got another wave ahead of us," said Jon Myatt, spokesman for the Florida Department of Military Affairs.
That's no surprise to Lynda Lipke, whose husband, Chief Petty Officer Chris Lipke, is a reservist assigned to the Coast Guard Port Security Unit 307 in Clearwater.
He returned in April from a six-month deployment to Iraq, only to head out again in June for six months at Guantanamo Bay.
Chris Lipke has been gone for half of his 2-year-old daughter Maggie's life.
"I just tell her Daddy's at work and he's in Cuba and when he's done working he'll be back," said Lynda Lipke, 44, of St. Petersburg.
Chris was sent to Boston right after Sept. 11, 2001, then went on his first trip to Cuba, then deployed to Kuwait. In all, he has been activated with the Reserves four out of the past 10 years.
Not all the local troops are deployed overseas. Some, like the 3rd Battalion, 116th Field Artillery Regiment in Plant City, are training at stateside bases.
The Plant City troops, part of the Army National Guard, are helping prepare other soldiers on their way to war, said Lt. Ira Bryant, the unit spokesman.
Family members of Guard and Reserve troops seem almost invisible. They don't flaunt their military connection and rarely ask for help, at least publicly. A $5-million state fund set aside three years ago to help Reserve and Guard families has gone largely untouched.
The Lipkes say helping Maggie stay connected to Daddy is the biggest challenge they face.
Lynda took a picture of her husband to a local drugstore and had it printed on a pillowcase for Maggie.
"Every night when she goes to bed she can still snuggle with him," Lynda said.
On his last deployment, Chris could sometimes use a Webcam to communicate online with his daughter.
"She'd hug the monitor and kiss it when she walked by," Lynda said. "She'd be like 'Da-da lives there.' "
Chris, who in real life installs fiber-optic cables for Verizon, already knows when his next deployment is, but wouldn't reveal the details.
He has mixed feelings.
"I've come to find out that a 2-year-old makes a big difference in one's life," he said.
Contact Jan Wesner at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439. Click on blogs.tampabay.com/standingby for more about military life.