By: 2nd Lt. Katrina Cheesman, 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany (AFNS) — Despite their distinguished status as the wives of Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody, Betty Welsh and Athena Cody casually fit in the circle of chatting coffee-drinking ladies like they’ve been here their entire life. Maybe it was their smiles, or their easy manner or perhaps their commitment to honoring the service, strength and sacrifices of military families.
“General Welsh is scared to death of what will happen when we have a girl,” Welsh, grandmother of three boys, said with a laugh, drawing chuckles from her audience. Welsh bounced four-month-old Hope, daughter of Capt. Jeremy Phifer, 480th Maintenance Squadron, and Valynda Phifer, on her knee. Hope’s big blue eyes took in her surroundings as Welsh and Cody listened to each woman’s story with inviting smiles.
The eclectic group, mothers of rowdy children and caretakers of animal companions, active duty spouses and dependent wives, has one thing in common: their spouse is deployed, and they are left behind to hold down the fort…alone.
It’s the little things that remind the spouses of their deployed loved ones…the empty chair at the table, the forgotten sock under the couch, the pacing dog that paces anxiously for his missing master.
“I found our dog sitting on my husband’s computer chair; he’s normally never there,” Melissa Bigler, wife of Staff Sgt. Tyler Bigler, 606th Air Control Squadron, told the listening group. She looked down at the coffee cup in her hands before continuing. “The dog is very protective of me. At the time when my husband is supposed to come home, he stands in front of the door, waiting… I just try to keep busy, you know?”
And they do. These spouses represent a small fraction of the spouses and families at Spangdahlem Air Base who keep supporting the mission, even when their military spouse is continents away. For this visit, Welsh and Cody’s mission was simple: relay the Air Force’s appreciation for the family, to the family. According to the duo, it isn’t just the Air Force that supports the family; the family also supports the Air Force.
Welsh and Cody, who visited Spangdahlem alongside their husbands, are experts in this matter. They’ve spent a combined 64 years supporting their husbands, their families and their militaries through countless moves, late nights and long deployments. So what’s their secret?
For Welsh, there’s no magic military spell or fairy godmother in camo gear to make it any easier. It’s just about learning how to deal with the sacrifices of a military life.
“I remember during Mark’s first deployment, I called my mother-in-law. Mark’s dad had been in for 34 years, so I asked her how she did it all those years. She said, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,'” Welsh said. “And I thought, ‘well, that may be true, but I don’t think that makes anything easier.'”
“We’ve always relied on each other,” echoed Cody, who served in uniform for 26 years herself before retiring as a chief master sergeant. “We’ve all become a family of our own and we understand when and how to help each other.”
“We are a family here. We have to be a family here,” Welsh added as the spouses of deployed members expressed a sense of overwhelming positive support for each other…and the military.
Their connection to the military goes beyond their use of the commissary and child development center; it’s “our” fifth deployment and “our” years in the Air Force. There is a sense of ownership and pride in their contributions to their military family. They recognize the sacrifices that their spouses make during deployments, and they are ready to support one another through their own home front trials.
“We are resilient and savvy. We have our hiccups, our problems, but we also have each other,” said Lee McDonough, 52nd Fighter Wing Community Support Coordinator, wife of Maj. Patrick McDonough of the 52nd Dental Squadron. Heads nodded in agreement. It’s true; while the rare cat fights might occur, everyone here is as loyal as a dog.
And it is that essential support system that carries them through the tough times. When one falls, the others are there to pick them up. With this in mind, Welsh and Cody applauded their fellow spouses’ efforts to reach out to each other and build that strong support system.
“Continue to encourage each other,” Cody said. “There are many family members today who need that support. They need your help through today’s challenges, and they’ll most definitely need others for the challenges of tomorrow.”
For these spouses, those challenges of tomorrow will come, but today is another day to give back to the Air Force through support of each other at home and their spouses abroad.
“Keeping the home front going means so much to our military members,” Welsh said. “You make us proud. We know the mission, and we appreciate how you support that mission. Thank you for supporting our Air Force.”
And as the group gathered up their things to face another day without their spouses, it was no coincidence that tiny Hope was still smiling in Welsh’s arms, a small personification of the strength that keeps Air Force families going.