JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Clasping her hands at the sound of an engine breaking through the clouds at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Janet Hollingsworth briefly closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky in gratitude. After a six-month deployment overseas, Commander (CDR) Chuck Hollingsworth, her “best friend” and “soul mate” for more than 20 years, was coming home for Christmas.
“I think I’ve loved him since I was 5,” Janet said of Chuck. “God is good.”
Glancing at the four Hollingsworth children lined up outside the hangar awaiting their father’s return, Janet said it had been a long week calming “antsy” and sometimes “short-fused” kids who were finally able to believe dad indeed was coming home.
Waiting for the aircraft to finish taxiing down the runway so they could peek a glimpse of their father in the sophisticated P3 Orion’s cockpit, Tyler, 16, Amylynn, 14, Gage, 13, and Brooke, 11, smiled and pointed to their dad’s aircraft.
“It’s him. He’s in the cockpit,” Gage confirmed, eyeballing the commander’s name painted under the small cockpit window.
“Uh, huh, there he is,” Tyler chimed in, hands stuffed into his jean pockets.
“I think I can see him,” Brooke said, shading her eyes.
Amylynn held high the kids’ favorite sign: “Welcome Home Skipper, What’d you bring us?”
On top of working on their typical “Welcome Home” decorations adorning the house and the road along the main gate on the Navy base, the family had spent countless hours the day before sprucing up the home for Christmas – only to be told CDR Hollingsworth would return a day later than anticipated because of repairs needed on his aircraft en route back from Europe.
Moments before the plane arrived, Janet told the Florida Baptist Witness she and other wives whose husbands were delayed formed a teary “lonely wives club” when they got a call that the crew would be a day late.
“OK, I thought, one more day,” Janet said. “One more day is a long time when it’s one more day.”
At Madeira Baptist Church in Orange Park where Chuck and Janet have been members since 1986, all in the family are now members and Chuck is a deacon and is in the choir. Janet said the folks at Wednesday night choir rehearsal were disappointed that Chuck, who sings tenor, had not yet returned, but were excited he would be joining them for a Dec. 19 Christmas special.
“Like always, we just want them to be safe and get here,” Janet said. He’s been gone for six months and three months before that, so it’s been a long year.”
Janet said she and Chuck met when she was 5 years old. Their families were close and the two were married the day after he graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Since then they have been stationed in the Southeast, except for a stint in Japan. Their church membership has been Southern Baptist for the most part since Chuck became involved in the Baptist Student Union at the Naval Academy under the direction of then director, Dick Bumpass.
Describing the rigors of keeping the home fires burning when Chuck has been deployed elsewhere, Janet said she takes things in stride “one day at a time.”
“It’s actually been the Lord,” Janet said. “When we got the word a few days ago that Chuck wasn’t going to be in, we had to just trust that [God] is a sovereign God. That’s hard work sometimes, to just stop and ignore the circumstances and your feelings.”
And in looking back over what she refers to a “very dynamic deployment” for the VP-16 Squadron, Janet said she’s often voiced the thought: “Lord, it’s only You.”
Eyes misty, Janet continued, “If I’ve done any good at all, it’s only God’s grace and mercy, because this is beyond me. Raising four kids alone is beyond me. Keeping your head together when you don’t think you can, that’s the Lord.
“I’ve just been very blessed to have a godly husband for my mate and the father of my children and his four wonderful children, which I hope I haven’t ruined this year on my own.”
And challenges there were. Talking about life without dad, each of the four children recalled the moment they most missed having him around.
“It was when there were all the hurricanes and our house got struck by lightning,” Brooke said, after a brief hesitation. “I kinda wish he was there to make everything calmer. It was really hectic.”
Amylynn corroborated Brooke’s story and added that it was especially scary when the family started to drive back from Pensacola after one of the hurricanes and the wind and rain nearly drove them off the road.
“That’s when I wished my dad was there because my mom was freaking us out and she was driving all over the road,” Amylynn said. “We stopped to get gas and my brother got out of the car and it blew him away and it blew the door open and it was just really bad.”
Neither of the girls could decide whether the storm was Hurricane Frances or Hurricane Jeanne – but both said the experience is not something they wish to repeat. At least not without Commander Hollingsworth around.
For Amylynn, starting high school was hard without dad, though he “doesn’t really go to school or anything, but he’s there.”
For Gage, a cornerback and wide receiver on his school’s team, the fact that his dad missed the entire football season wasn’t as important as the anticipation of a wrestling meet. The seventh-grader would finally be able to show off some of the new things he’s learned on the mat.
“It’s all new to me,” Janet said of Gage’s wrestling. “He’s definitely got some new moves.”
Sixteen-year-old Tyler admitted to feeling more responsibility around the house since his father’s been gone. But, in reality, he said he probably hasn’t done anything he wouldn’t “normally do.”
“I would still have to do [chores] if he was here, but now I have to make sure I do them without being told,” Tyler said. “I’m fine with that.”
Naming a defining moment when the pain of missing his father was intense, Tyler said he was at summer camp when the loneliness hit.
“Something came up and it just made me really miss my dad,” Tyler said. “I knew he was in Iraq or Italy. They couldn’t tell us.”
Tyler said talking with a counselor about his concern for his dad helped him to overcome the feelings.
“As a Christian I know that even if something were to happen to him, he’d be OK,” Tyler said. “I could just put my faith in God and trust Him that he would get back OK. So yesterday when the plane broke down I wasn’t really worried because I knew he would get back.”
Tyler, who is involved in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) at his high school, said he doesn’t have a girlfriend and is looking forward to talking with his dad about girls because mom “knows too much about them.”
A HERO’S WELCOME
The P3 Orion finally came to a stop in front of hangar 1000 at NAS Jacksonville and within moments a ground crew assisted in lowering the plane’s steps.
CDR Hollingsworth was the first one off. He is the commanding officer of Patrol Squadron Sixteen.
Janet hesitated momentarily, seeking clearance to approach the plane. Her husband nodded and then enveloped her in a long hug, still holding bouquets of roses for her and his daughters.
As other families moved in to greet their service members, the Hollingsworth kids tried to get their dad to read their sign about presents for them.
At the moment, however, his eyes are for Janet only. Again and again he hugs and kisses her while the kids stand sheepishly nearby. Soon he grabs them into hugs as well.
Once they have had several minutes to catch up, Hollingsorth’s boss, Captain Dennis J. Sinnett, commander of Patrol & Reconnaissance Wing Eleven, ushers the family to a nearby hallway where they exchange greetings with an extra measure of privacy.
“Gage, you’ve grown six inches taller,” the CDR tells his younger son.
“Yeah, Dad. I have a wrestling meet on Saturday,” Gage says in one of his umpteenth reminders.
Finally, the Hollingsworths head into the massive hangar where 400-plus sailors are standing at attention, awaiting a word from their commander and from Sinnett.
Getting down to business, Sinnett thanked the men and women of PV-16 and reminded them they were “on the forefront” of the war on terrorism.
“Your country is safer because of what you have accomplished over the last six months,” Sinnet said. “It’s all because of people like you that this nation is going to win this war on terrorism.”
Following Sinnett’s address, Hollingsworth took the podium to announce the end of the deployment and remind the sailors of their various accomplishments.
Describing their multifaceted mission, Hollingsworth lauded the squadron for operating nearly flawlessly in executing more than 300 operational missions and 4,500 flight hours dispersed over five continents and 11 time zones.
Hollingsworth also spoke of the personal sacrifices made by the “War Eagles” in missing “literally hundreds” of birthdays, anniversaries, sporting events, weddings, funerals and more.
“Twelve of you have missed one of the most significant events of life, and that was the birth of a child,” Hollingsworth said. “I know that you have sacrificed. I do know that this city and this state and this country and this world really are the safest place because of your service to this nation.
“I know that there are people all over the world that will forever look at the red, white and blue of Old Glory a little bit differently now because of your courage,” Hollingsworth continued. “I know that God has blessed us and I pray that He will continue to do so as you reunite with families.”
HOME AT LAST
Lounging in an easy chair in his home the afternoon he returned, CDR Hollingsworth explained the mission he had been involved in.
The P3 Orion was originally designed to track enemy submarines through a sophisticated system of sensors. The plane can both track and attack, Hollingsworth said. Currently, the aircraft have been tasked with ISC missions – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. With a lot of delicate sensors on board, the aircraft have been constantly overland in Iraq and Afghanistan, known as the “eyes” for a lot of Marines, he said. “If we see an unknown or a potential enemy truck coming around the corner … we let them know,” Hollingsworth said.
The squadron also has engaged in maritime missions, performing counter-drug actions in order to cut off terrorists’ money supplies used to purchase weapons via illegal drug sales.
Hollingsworth said the squadron was responsible for confiscating a record 54 metric tons of cocaine in the past three months worth well over $2 billion.
“It’s been very different when they want you to do counter-drug ops in El Salvador, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq, and everything in between in Europe, Bosnia, Kosovo [and] Romania — [and] engagement, foreign policy kinds of things like tracking foreign submarines that people thought didn’t get underway anymore,” Hollingsworth said. Throw in different countries and time zones and “you just felt like you were spinning plates.”
Janet could relate.
Try driving through hurricanes, helping other sailors’ wives keep their chins up and helping four children with their science fair projects.
She said she was “hopefully able to impart peace to others” because of her belief that God is in control.
“That’s what gave me peace in the midst of the storm,” Janet said.
Falling asleep during personal devotions and while listening to sermons from back home were normal in the course of a very short day and night for Hollingsworth. Keeping command of such a broad operation in such a variety of time zones left him dropping into bed each night.
Decisions which might have been more “black and white” if America was not “in the middle of a war” weighed heavily on his mind.
“I would have to just send them out and trust them to do their job,” Hollingsworth said of his junior officers; otherwise, “you would go nuts and wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
In addition, Hollingsworth said he trusts in a “providential God” who is very much in control.
Much like Janet had to trust when certain things had to wait for dad to come home. And certain things, like science projects, made it to school on a wing and a prayer. Literally.
On Hollingsworth’s short list of things to do are priorities for each of the children: For Tyler, he pledges to spend time driving with him in preparation for his driver’s license. For Amylynn, whom he called “Miss Socialite,” the erstwhile dad promises to “talk about social things, dating things … because I understand that other people out there are starting to take note of her.” For Gage, it’s simple: “I have to see a wrestling match because I missed his whole football season.” Finally, for Brooke, she just needs time to go outside and play with dad. Even in her pink ruffles, he laughed.
And for now, Janet will have to be satisfied with the multi-paged “sonnet” her comical husband e-mailed her a few weeks ago after she told him the “really long love-notes” of about five sentences he was sending were making her eyes “sore.”
“He made me laugh,” she said. “He’s always making me laugh.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.