By: Susan Page USA TODAY COLUMBIA, S.C. — For Gov. Nikki Haley’s kids, the first three months of their father’s deployment this year to Afghanistan were the hardest. For her, the toughest time came later. “The first three months, I just prayed that we’d have one day where one of the kids wasn’t crying,” Haley told USA TODAY. “When we crossed that point, Michael got his two-weeks R-and-R in June, and I thought, oh my God, we’re going to go through this again.” To her surprise, their son and daughter, now 12 and 15, seemed reassured and happier after his visit in May and June. But she found herself devastated when he left for the second time. “It actually hurt me terribly, because to see him go away — I realized how much I had missed him,” the 41-year-old governor says. “I realized how lonely I had been and realized how much a part of life he really was. That’s when it got really hard. … I just realized how easier life was when he was there and how empty it is when he’s not.” Nikki Randhawa Haley has been a groundbreaker. She is the first female governor of South Carolina and, as an Indian American, the state’s first minority governor, elected in 2010 after a hard-fought campaign. When her husband, Michael Haley, was deployed to Afghanistan with his South Carolina National Guard unit, she also became the first sitting U.S. governor to have a spouse deployed to a combat zone by the National Guard. She sat down Friday for a remarkably candid conversation about the personal side of that experience, her first extended interview about what this year has been like for her family — from the sitcom follies of locking herself out of the Governor’s Mansion in her bathrobe to the challenges of dealing with her mother’s hospitalization without Michael by her side. Haley, often at odds with the state’s GOP establishment, has been gearing up for a re-election bid next year without ready access to her most trusted sounding board. Still, she says her point is not that her struggles are unique but that they are universal among military families. “It’s been a long year but, you know, this is what military families do,” she says. She and the children are counting the days until he will be back for good: “Right now our fingers are crossed that he’ll be home for Christmas.”

Just call him FGOSC

The Marines deployed with the South Carolina National Guard unit in Helmand province gave Michael Haley a teasing nickname: FGOSC, pronounced “fu-gosk,” an acronym for “First Gentlemen of South Carolina.” It’s modeled on FLOTUS, Washington shorthand for First Lady of the United States. When he arrived in Afghanistan, he said by e-mail, he faced curiosity as well as some worries about the potential security risks raised by his wife’s position. (Other individuals with prominent political connections also have been deployed to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, among them the sons of Vice President Biden, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.) “There may have been some concern early on but it did not pose to be an issue throughout my tour,” Haley wrote. “I think those that knew found it intriguing, but it certainly was not advertised here at all so it allowed for our team to operate as normal.” Michael Haley is part of the 3/49 Agribusiness Development Team working in Helmand, focused on four districts around the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. They have been working with local agricultural officials to encourage the cultivation of food crops instead of the poppy plants used to produce opium – a major cash crop for the Taliban. He describes the mission as rewarding and successful, especially in strengthening district governments. He has lived in three operating bases and traveled to others, creating challenges for staying in touch with his family. Until recently, phone calls were problematic and using Skype or Facetime difficult, so the couple have relied on exchanging e-mails each morning and night to keep in touch. “I think the hardest thing for all of us is not being with our kids,” he said. (Three of the 47 members of his unit have had babies born during their deployment.) “They grow up fast and a year is a precious amount of time to have missed.” Holidays have been hard, Gov. Haley says. “Something as simple as Valentine’s Day or the kids’ birthday or the first day of school, which was always a big deal, or going to a basketball game — those things are all important, and when we’re at an event, there’s somebody missing,” she says. The night before, she was getting ready to take the kids out for Halloween, Nalin dressed as a Clemson football player (his mother’s alma mater) and Rena as a cheerleader. “The kids said, ‘Dad always takes us trick-or-treating.'” Her political problems sometimes worry her husband, too, Gov. Haley says. “He was always that defender of me,” she says. “The fact that he sometimes reads the news and can’t be here makes him feel like he needs to be here.” Though they promised never to keep even bad news from one another, she has tried to be reassuring while he’s in harm’s way. “I always say, everything’s good on the home front; don’t you worry,” she said. “I can handle it.” There was that morning in September, though, when she was struggling to help Nalin get dressed on a day he needed to wear a tie to school. Even though she had gotten a clip-on version, she couldn’t get it straight and stepped outside the mansion in her bathrobe to ask a state trooper to help. After the tie was attached and the vehicle taking him to school had driven away, she discovered the front door had closed. It was locked. “There are security cameras there, so I stood there, waving, waiting for them to notice me,” she said. An exasperated Rena let her in. “What not to do … getting locked out of the Governor’s Mansion in your robe while sending the kids off to school. sigh … #adayinthelife,” Gov. Haley posted on Facebook. Her husband, half the world away, sent her a two-word text in response. “Really, Nikki?”

From Schools to Samsung 

Her public schedule Friday begins with a morning assembly at Leslie Stover Middle School in Elgin, 20 miles northeast of the capital. She shows an anti-bullying video that features football coaches Dabo Swinney of Clemson and Steve Spurrier of the University of South Carolina as well as Miss South Carolina USA and Miss South Carolina Teen USA. Haley tells them that she was bullied as a child in Bamberg — “They didn’t know if I was black or white” — and then quizzes them on the official state tree, bird, drink and snack. (It takes 10 guesses, from Oreos to grilled cheese sandwiches, to get the right answer to that one: peanuts.) She has delivered a similar message at about two dozen schools, starting after she got a letter from a teenage girl threatening suicide because she was being bullied at school. Back at the Capitol, she meets with visiting Samsung executives lobbying for a contract with a state pilot program to replace textbooks with e-books. At midday, she heads to a luncheon in her honor at Columbia College, a woman’s school that received a $500,000 grant in a state higher-education program she supported. She tours a manufacturer that makes seals for machinery, talking with executives about how their business is doing. Later, she stands in a hallway of the Capitol to chat with visiting members of the student legislature at Lander University, a state school in Greenwood. In a late afternoon downpour, she leaves for a  fundraiser hosted by a prominent car dealer, Bill McDaniels, and Suzanne Pucci. She poses for photos, mingles with the 50 or so people who contributed $500 to $3,500 each to attend and gives brief remarks that tout her support of business, her suspicion of government regulation, her opposition to unions and her education agenda. Haley mentions her husband and his deployment only in passing, though everyone in the room seems to know where he is. Given the demands and political realities of her job, she says she hasn’t felt free to join the dinners and support groups for other spouses of those deployed, relying instead on family and friends for support and regular hot yoga classes for stress relief. Of course, as governor, she also has staff support and resources, including a mansion chef, not available to most. The Haleys employ a University of South Carolina student to help with the kids. At the end of the day, after rain upends plans to see Rena cheerleading at River Bluff High School, Haley arrives home around 8 p.m. Her younger brother and his family are visiting for the weekend from Atlanta; their 2-year-old toddler, C.J., is careening down the front hallway. She changes into jeans and sits down with Nalin and C.J. for enormous bowls of ice cream. They already have had dinner. “How was your day?” she asks her son. In a manner familiar to mothers of 12-year-olds everywhere, he mumbles, “Fine,” and digs into dessert.   Share your MilSpouse story with us at [email protected]

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