February 6, 2003
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U.S. Air Force Major Kirk Rowe at a home in Clifton with his wife, Christina, and their children, Forrest and Merideth.

A serviceman in Saudi Arabia, a dad like everyone else at home

Dads like Clifton resident Kirk Rowe don’t leave their families for three months on a moment’s notice for just anything. But when they are called by the U.S. military, they take their leave proudly.

Major Rowe, a clinical neuropsychologist in the 74th Medical Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, remembered the apprehension he had a year ago about leaving his wife and two young children for the first time.

“I was in the hot seat for quite a while, a couple months prior to going,” Rowe said. “A lot of people love to go, but I didn’t get that. I was worried about leaving my family.”

Rowe’s wife, Christina, recalled her anxiety.

“I wasn’t excited at all because we didn’t know if it would be six months with no communication and possibly not knowing where he was,” she said.

After Rowe learned last March that he would be spending 90 days at Prince Sultan Air Base in northeastern Saudi Arabia, the family had a place and a time frame to work with. Four-year-old Meredith got a calendar to count down the days until her father’s return. She kept track for herself and her 1-year-old brother, Forrest.

Rowe flew out March 7 on a commercial airline for a 17-hour flight to Riyadh. It was his first trip overseas and his first time in the air since the World Trade Center attack just six months before. But his anxiety was put to rest shortly after arriving at what he called a “well-established base with a great crew to work with at the hospital.”

Rising at 5:30 a.m. every morning with the desert sun to catch the bus to the base hospital, Rowe spent his 10- to 12-hour days counseling and evaluating military personnel. Most service people’s issues involved the strain the distance put on relationships with people back home, Rowe said.

“It’s difficult doing marital therapy when one spouse is 5,000 miles away and the spouse here is wanting out,” he said. “It’s like doing one-sided marital counseling.”

For the most part, Rowe said, “the medical people there are not that busy. We’re there basically waiting for something to happen.”

In fact it was so quiet that Rowe taught smoking cessation classes for service members who, he said, “wanted to do something positive while they were there.”

But fostering intercultural exchange was not on the agenda since military personnel were not allowed to go off the base other than for “express purpose,” Rowe said. The only multicultural interaction he had was with “third country nationals,” people from countries other than the U.S. and Saudi Arabia who are hired for duties such as cooking, cleaning and laundry services on the base.

U.S. military personnel were also not allowed to drink alcohol out of respect for Saudi Muslims, who don’t drink, Rowe said. But no alcohol meant no trouble from alcohol abuse, which reduced the responsibilities for the mental health professionals who deal with those types of incidents, he said.

Restrictions such as these tended to open up time for other activities, such as communicating with loved ones back home.

But usually personnel had to wait in line for one 15-minute phone call per week, Rowe said. And if they were clever, after the first call they would clamor to the back of the line for a second. Rowe was lucky enough to have a phone in his room.

Phone calls and online chats often had to be scheduled because of the eight-hour time difference between Ohio and the base in Saudi Arabia.

“It gave our daughter some control knowing when to call,” Christina said.

The Rowes did not know how their children would react or how much they would understand their father’s absence. Both trained psychologists, Kirk and Christina watched Meredith especially to see how she would handle it.

“We explained to her, ‘Daddy’s going a long way to help people,’ ” Christina said. “She said, ‘That’s sad and kind of scary.’ ”

The first week her father was gone Meredith “seemed clingy,” Christina said. But once she realized her world wasn’t going to change, she got excited about phone calls to her father and the packages he sent with desert photos and stuffed camels.

With a less than demanding work schedule, Rowe had a number of other diversions to choose from.

There was a big gym with a pool, organized sports to play or watch, and the base’s movie theater. There were letter-writing parties where troops would respond to letters of appreciation from individuals from the U.S.

The two main chow halls served great food, Rowe said, with the freshest of melons, apples, pears and thousands and thousands of cookies. And if the service personnel ever really got to longing for their American roots, they could sit down with a Burger King Whopper and a scoop of the 31 flavors, just like here at home, and watch the cheerleaders from the Baltimore Ravens who came to support the troops overseas.

Rowe said he spent most of his time reading and thinking of his daughter watching the same moon he saw over the desert at night.

“He could read all day, the cooking was done for him, there were no poopy diapers to change. . . .” Christina said. “If it wasn’t for missing his family, it was like a vacation for him.”

But when 90 days rolled around and Rowe learned his departure would be delayed indefinitely, it was a blow for the whole family.

“Psychologically, you gear yourself up for it in the beginning. You say, ‘O.K., 90 days,’ ” Christina said. “It was emotional for me when we had to change the arrival date on the calendar.”

As a counselor, it was Rowe’s job to reassure others that they would return home safely when it was time, and yet he became nervous when his date was commuted, he said.

Luckily he only stayed 10 extra days before June 17, when he rejoined his family in Ohio.

“Meredith especially was overwhelmed, and none of us realized how much she had missed him,” Christina said. “For the next few days she would touch him and want to be near him all the time.”

It didn’t take Rowe long to remember Saudi Arabia hadn’t been all good. There were sandstorms and days when the temperature reached 110 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

“You’d get dirt in your mouth all the time,” he said. “I like being here at Wright-Patt, I like cloudy Ohio.”

Rowe said that the deployment schedule for his division works on a 15-month rotation. As long as the political climate remains steady, he could be up for redeployment again by the fall.

“It will be harder the next time because the kids are getting older, and the next base won’t be as nice,” he said.

Rowe comes from a tradition of military parents, uncles, grandparents, but he seemed surprised to hear himself say he wants to stay with it.

“I like being part of something bigger, I’m proud to go to Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Christina, also a former military officer, thinks about how their military life affects the family’s involvement with the Yellow Springs schools and the Community Children’s Center, where Meredith attends school.

“Yellow Springs isn’t a real fit for the military,” she said, “but my thought is that we need more of that thinking in the military.”

—Lauren Heaton