PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida --
The car battery died; the air conditioner just quit working; the dog needs to be walked; the kids need help with homework; your dentist called for appointments; dinner hasn’t been cooked; the dishes aren’t clean; the grass is too tall; and the laundry hasn’t been started. This is day two of your spouse being gone on an overseas combat deployment.
It’s a job that commands you to hold your head up high, maintain a cool, calm and collected appearance, while navigating through the mountain of responsibilities, usually shared with your spouse, that have a unique ability of multiplying when they’re gone. The title, military spouse, isn’t for the weak. It’s a demanding job with rewards so infinite, it’s difficult to comprehend beyond what’s seen at the surface.
Military spouse, Sheri Hufnagel, knows all too well the sacrifices made. Her husband of 13 years is Senior Master Sgt. Wes Hufnagel, 920th Pararescueman (PJ). “Since meeting Wes in 2003 we have endured ten long deployments together and countless TDY’s,” Sheri said. “It feels like we have spent more time apart than together.” A common theme for many Airmen within the 920th Rescue Wing, the most-deployed unit in the Air Force Reserve.
Hufnagel attributes her ability to enduring those lengthy times apart to her strong, independent nature. She explained that the most difficult moments for her have been sacrifices within her own career path. Originally, Hufnagel wanted to pursue a career at a crime lab after her college graduation, but ultimately decided to follow her heart and allow fate to takes its course.
Along with the hardships of the household when a spouse is deployed, comes the uncertainty of their military spouse's safety. Air Force Pararescuemen are the only Department of Defense specialty group specifically trained and equipped to conduct conventional or unconventional rescue operations. Their primary function is as personnel recovery specialists with emergency trauma medical capabilities in humanitarian and combat environments. They deploy in any available manner, to include air-land-sea tactics, into restricted environments to authenticate, extract, treat, stabilize and evacuate injured personnel, while acting in an enemy-evading, recovery role. Their motto, “That Others May Live” reaffirms the Pararescueman’s commitment to saving lives and self-sacrifice.
Every deployment brings unique hardships and when Sheri’s husband was tasked to leave in January, this too would be the case. That’s why there are several entities to smooth the transition for family members which include Chaplains, the Key Spouse Program, Military Family Life Counselor’s (MFLC), Wing Leadership and more.
“The MFLC always made herself available for whatever was needed and the Airman Family Readiness Center hosted family dinners so we could all get together with our kids, hug, talk and just relate to one another,” Sheri explained. “Everyone from the wing, and even our community, were so understanding and always helpful,” Sheri said. “When my neighbors heard Wes was away their son came over to mow my lawn, the teachers at my daughters' school made sure to keep an eye on them and let me know how they were adjusting throughout the deployment, and my employer was incredibly understanding of the temporary single-parent status.”
For several months, Sheri would soldier on as she had always done; counting the days until her family would be whole once more. Nothing about this deployment seemed different than any that came before. That would change three months into the deployment.
In March, a helicopter carrying Sergeant Hufnagel’s teammates crashed in Iraq, claiming the lives of all seven Airmen onboard. “I was absolutely devastated,” Sheri said. “I didn’t know how to process the information. How do I tell our kids? There was so much uncertainty. And quite honestly, I was scared to death, because my husband was still out there.” The reality of the dangerous position Wes has held for 24 years hit home. Sheri explained how many emotions she’d been thrust into experiencing the following days, some simultaneously. From extreme sadness and fear to frustration and hopelessness.
In such an extreme situation, Sheri had to rely on herself, her friends, her family, the 920th RQW and the support of the squadron members her husband works alongside every day to help her through.
Sheri recalled the outpouring of love and support she received from her community and military personnel on base after the accident. “It was so amazing, it still brings tears to my eyes to reflect back on how much everyone stopped their lives to help all of us,” she recalled. “Even other squadrons, like the 301st, provided meals for our squadron for two weeks. My neighbors came over to talk to me and entertain my girls. Military members and friends from other bases we’ve met throughout the years called to see how I was doing. The principal and teachers at my daughters school gave me weekly reports on how my girls were coping while their dad was still away. And military wives within our squadron checked in with each other to talk and cry together.”
Many spouses form unique bonds with the military families they’re surrounded by, and being a PJs wife is no exception. In fact, Sheri would argue that because of the nature of the job they do within combat search and rescue, the bonds forged are even stronger. She explained how close each member of the unit is with one another and how much the unit supports the welfare of their families.
“Our squadron support to my family alone was so heartwarming and I am forever grateful for my second family,” Sheri said. “At the drop of a hat, 308th Rescue Squadron members were there to help with trimming my palm trees, watching my kids, bandaging up my daughter’s finger that she cut, and answering my phone calls at any hour to console me or just to listen.” Sheri explained that no matter how independent or strong she would like to think she is, she’s well aware that she couldn’t do it alone and having the love and support of the wing and local community has been a Godsend. But in spite of it all, Sheri’s certain her life wouldn’t be complete without Wes, his career and their two children. “I have some of the best friends, stationed all over the globe, friends that I will have forever, thanks to Wes’s job, and I wouldn’t change that a bit.”
“Being married to a PJ has been the best 15 years of my life,” she said. “Waking up next to a man that will proudly risk his life to save someone else is incredibly inspiring. And with the next breath, he’s up early to make coffee and breakfast for her and then promptly chase his two girls around the house with Nerf guns.”