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Military Families @ WDW
Military familes can deploy to Disney World for family R & R
By Cindy Loose, WASHINGTON POST
Inside Bay Area
Article Last Updated:02/20/2007 11:11:19 AM PST
IT WAS the thing that often kept him going during a dangerous deployment near Tikrit, Iraq. On scorching, dusty days and frigid, muddy days, Lt. James "Taylor" Riley would imagine strolling through an immaculately clean theme park, his son Liam on his shoulders, his wife Delacey at his side. All three in this scene were in their shirtsleeves, basking in a warm December sun. By then, Christmas lights would cover trees and bushes; carols would fill the air. He could see it in his mind.
Then, after a 14-month separation, all three posed with Mickey Mouse, surrounded by red-bowed wreaths and Christmas trees. It was one highlight of their trip to Shades of Green, a Department of Defense-owned resort on Walt Disney World property.
For the Rileys and other military families who have been separated by war, such trips are not merely vacations. They are also reunions, celebrations of life, a means of reconnecting. On any given day, as many as 60 families at Shades of Green are on the resort's R&R package, meaning at least one parent has recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, says front office manager Sharon Galzeski. An additional number, which the resort doesn't track, are there squeezing in quality family time pre-deployment.
Taylor, 35, a full-time member of a South Carolina National Guard engineering battalion, had once agreed with Delacey, 37, that they should delay a trip to Disney until Liam was at least 5. But then Taylor was put in charge of a platoon clearing roads of improvised explosive devices. The couple realized they couldn't count on having all the time in the world together. And they needed to focus their minds on something positive.
Disney became that something.
Liam was just more than a year old when his father left for the Middle East. He could repeat what he'd been told: "Daddy in Raq." But he clearly didn't understand what that meant. Once the family decided to take a post-deployment trip, however, Liam had a concrete idea to attach to his father: "When Daddy comes home, we'll visit Mickey Mouse."
Back home, searching the Web, Delacey stumbled on information about Shades of Green, which was acquired from Disney by the DOD in 1994, and in 2004 underwent a renovation and expansion that doubled its size, to 586 rooms. One of four resorts worldwide operated by the U.S. military for members of the armed services and Department of Defense contractors, it includes swimming pools, lighted tennis courts, a fitness center, a playground and a golf course.
As a recent veteran of the Iraq war, Taylor was eligible for a special R&R package that included breakfast and dinner with the already reasonably priced room of less than $100 a night. Delacey figured they could afford a whole week.
The resorts and other travel deals "help give the military community the same opportunities for a vacation as the people in the society they defend," says Dan Yount, chief of Army Leisure Travel Services. "We believe the benefits of travel and recreation are enormous." For people returning from a deployment, he adds, a vacation is "about getting reacquainted."
Taylor had done his best to maintain strong bonds with his family during two months of training in Washington state and 12 more in Iraq by calling home every day. He'd taken with him copies of four books that Liam also had at home. Each day, about 4:30 p.m., Taylor would line up at a phone booth, storybooks under his arm. Given the eight-hour time difference, that meant that soon after getting up each day, Liam would hear his dad asking, "What do you want to read?"
"The dad book" referred to a story called "Just Me and My Dad." "Where the Wild Things Are" became, in Liam's words, "wild book." Long before the deployment was over, Liam had memorized the books and would correct Taylor if he changed or skipped a word.
Liam learned quickly during the deployment that it didn't help to cry for his father. But at times he'd tearfully announce, "I need my daddy pillow." The pillow was a Delacey creation. She went to a shop near their small town of Edgefield, about 60 miles southwest of Columbia, and had Taylor's picture printed on a T-shirt. Then she cut the shirt into a rectangle and stuffed it. Liam slept with his Daddy pillow every night.
And then in December, Daddy was back. Liam held his father's hand as they walked the freshly swept sidewalks of Animal Kingdom.
"This is our first vacation together, just the three of us," said Taylor as the family passed Minnie Mouse. "After a long separation, we just wanted to go away and immerse ourselves in each other."
At Disney's MGM park, Taylor pointed to statues of Huey, Dewey and Louie and asks, "Who are they?"
"Daisy, Donald and Donald," answered Liam.
Taylor smiled and swept Liam, who has been looking through a picket fence, onto his shoulders.
The Rileys were on their fifth day of a week-long trip, not including the nine-hour drive each way.
Turns out Liam was not too young to appreciate Disney. He didn't fuss when they
got up early each morning to hit one of the four major parks when they opened, or when they stayed out long after dark. On the first four days, they visited one park per day — Magic Kingdom, MGM, Epcot and Animal Kingdom. Three of those days, they stayed from the time the park opened until at least dinnertime, then returned to the park until closing.
Liam's favorite things? "Whatever he's seeing at the moment," Delacey said. "We were at Epcot's Moroccan village when I asked him what was his favorite thing, and he said, 'Morocco.' Every character he sees is his favorite."
Then again, while Taylor was away Delacey had reviewed every detail about Disney World that she could find — with an eye toward "What would Liam like?"
During a stroll through Animal Kingdom, Delacey said that an elderly woman told her about her husband's deployment during World War II. "I figured that if she could do it for three years, I could do it one." Both Rileys are aware that Taylor might have to return to Iraq. He has 14 years in the National Guard, and plans to stick with it for at least 20.
While Taylor was away, Delacey said, she avoided news reports and decided it would be bad for everyone to worry. "There was nothing I could do. I had a sense that Taylor would be fine, and even if things didn't turn out that way, we'd get through it. God gave me peace."
Still, there were difficult, lonely days. Sitting down at the computer and planning their trip added to the excitement of anticipating the homecoming and gave her comfort. On a subconscious level, she says, planning created a feeling of assurance that Taylor was coming home. It's the way an otherwise rational mind works: If you have tickets for a certain date at a certain place, then obviously that's where you'll be when that time comes.
You'll get a five-day Park Hopper pass, hit four parks in four days, and on the fifth day, perhaps because you're too polite to say no, you'll meet a reporter and head first thing in the morning to revisit Animal Kingdom.
We board an open, safari-style vehicle for a ride through terrain that has been made to look African, with big game at every turn.
In the Asian section, Taylor hands Liam the laminated map, and the boy pretends to guide us by pointing along a route with curves but no turns.
He waits patiently in line to greet the various characters in the park. By the fifth day, he has the routine down pat.
Throughout the day, the couple shoots pictures, mostly of Liam. By the time the trip is over, they'll have hours of videotape and more than 800 photographs.
When Delacey takes Liam for a potty break, Taylor confides that his biggest worry about going to Iraq was that Liam would forget him. A colleague who went to Iraq before Taylor did told him that his youngest was frightened of him when he returned.
By the time Taylor arrived in Iraq, phone access was better. Occasionally he'd also get on a webcam so that Liam could see him, even though the connection wasn't fast enough to allow him to be heard as well as seen. Meanwhile, Delacey regularly videotaped Liam and sent footage to Taylor.
"I watched Liam growing up on film," Taylor says.
The minute Taylor returned to the States, it became clear he needn't have worried about being forgotten by his young son. He arrived with his battalion on a drill field at Fort Stewart, Ga., and marched in formation toward an area where Delacey and Liam were among those waiting.
While sitting in the sunshine on a patio outside the Shades of Green, Delacey remembers that day.
"Liam was kicking his feet and saying he was going to run to his daddy as soon as he saw him," Delacey says. "The mass finally parted, and there he was. The two just melted into each other's arms."
Children even in their first year can miss their parents, says T. Berry Brazelton, the famed pediatrician who recently released an updated edition of "Touchpoints: Birth to 3." The many thousands of American children with parents in Iraq or Afghanistan "are going through a lot more than we know," he says.
Brazelton approves of the Rileys' handling of the situation. "The children who get that kind of attention will be resilient and sail through," he says.
Taking a vacation — and it doesn't matter where it is — gives the members of any family an important chance to step outside their normal responsibilities and focus purely on each other, Brazelton says. It's particularly critical to a family that has been torn asunder.
Good story. Thanks for sharing.
Yea that was a good story. What a great way to reunite.