HELENA — Three members of one Helena family, sometimes separated in the past by military service, are now slated for plenty of time together as they all head to Afghanistan in the fall.
Master Sgts. Dan and Lola Skillman and their son, Sgt. Jaymes Skillman, all expect to leave in October for final training at Fort Hood, Texas, before spending nine months at the Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan as part of the 652nd Regional Support Group of the Army Reserve.
“Being in the military, me being over there and knowing what’s going on with these two, is going to be easier (than) me being back here,” Lola said of her husband and son.
The three soldiers have more than 70 years of combined service, and the upcoming deployment is yet another chapter in a marriage and family intertwined with the armed forces.
Dan and Lola met in the Army in Missoula in 1985. They deployed to a hospital unit in Germany about a decade ago, leaving their three kids stateside with grandparents in what Dan described as a second honeymoon.
They also had times of separation. Lola spent about three years at Fort Bragg, N.C., from 2004 to 2007 — with a lot of money spent on plane tickets back and forth — and Dan spent 18 months away from home in 2005 and 2006, most of it in Iraq.
Meanwhile their oldest, Jaymes, finished high school and joined the Army infantry, and was off to Iraq himself in 2006.
“He left one month after I got back,” Dan said of Jaymes.
Jaymes also spent time at Fort Bragg.
“I kid him about, I’ve cut the apron strings, but he sews them back together,” Lola said. “When I went to Fort Bragg, pretty soon he was stationed at Fort Bragg.”
Now the family is looking forward to serving together and being part of history. Dan said it will be “joyful” to serve with his wife, but like all soldiers, they are leaving others behind.
Those include Jaymes’ wife, Amber, and child, Suzi, who is not quite 4, along with Dan’s and Lola’s other two children and two grandchildren.
“She gets the concept that I’m away at work, but I’m not so sure that she realizes I am at war,” Jaymes said of Suzi. “And that will probably be the tough one, her not seeing her dad every day.”
They’re set to live in their grandparents’ house.
It’s the second time Jaymes has left Amber for service abroad. The family back home will be bolstered by a string support network — additional members of both Jaymes’ and Amber’s families, and of the other families of the 652nd.
For Jaymes, this deployment may be easier than the previous one. In Iraq five and six years ago, Jaymes would go weeks sometimes between sending emails back home.
“That was the hardest part with my deployment, with me going out on missions all the time, there was very little time to get the word out that I was OK, and I’m hanging in there,” he said. “That was a tough deployment.”
At Kandahar, the family will have regular access to the Internet and be able to communicate regularly.
“Overall it will be a better situation for the whole family,” he said.
The mission sounds safer than the Skillman men’s trips to Iraq — at least on the surface.
On the base, about 50 soldiers of the 652nd will be overseeing various “life support” systems. Dan and Jaymes will handle necessities from buildings to water to wiring, plus contracts — some 500 of them — related to that base and others in the country.
Lola works in MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) to keep the soldiers’ spirits up. She’s also handling VIP visits.
Dan said the base is a relatively safe place, but some missions of the 652nd could go off base.
“It’s in-between the bases that is tough,” he said. “It’s still war, that’s for darn sure.”
On base, there are some comforts of home, including a gymnasium and movie theaters, a boardwalk-style shopping mall — even a hockey rink. Alcohol, in keeping with local custom, is prohibited.
The trio is leaving behind civilian jobs. Dan and Lola work for the Department of Defense at Fort Harrison and Jaymes at Mergenthaler Transfer and Storage. Both Dan and Jaymes are diesel mechanics.
Dan’s father was in the National Guard, and his brothers also served — Dr. Don Skillman is an infectious diseases specialist at St. Peter’s Hospital and was an Army doctor— and Lola’s father served in World War II.
They’ve heard of other family teams — couples, or fathers and sons — deployed together but never a group like theirs.
“The war’s still going on, and this is what we signed up to do, to serve our country,” said Lola. “If we’re called out to do it, that’s what we’re going to do.”