Relief and readjustment: Dad back from Iraq, Appleton family refocuses

January 2012 Posted in People

By Kristine ThomasU.S. Army Lt. Col. Phillip Appleton and his daughter Anne at the welcoming of PFC Matt Stubblefield in Silverton in December 2011.

There was a battle for the television remote control at the Appleton household in Silverton.

On one side, Kat, 18, Bitsie, 16, and Anne Appleton, 14, who for the past year were accustomed to watching their programs when they wanted.

On the other side, Dad, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Phillip Appleton, 42, who returned home in September after serving a year as the commander of the 3rd Combined Arms Battalion for the Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in Northern Iraq.

He wanted to watch football on Sunday and Monday while his teenage daughters were keen on seeing Dancing with the Stars and other shows.

Enter Kari Appleton – referee, wife and mom.

“I told the girls they could record their shows and let their dad watch football,” Kari said, laughing. “The girls now watch football with him and I don’t think they understand that they aren’t supposed to be talking and asking questions during the game.”

The Appleton household is one of thousands across America readjusting to the return of a soldier from the recently completed war in Iraq.

The first month home is always the “honeymoon period,” Kari said, when everyone is on their best behavior. After that, like any military family, there’s an adjustment period.

“When he is gone, there is a little less structure at our house and when he returns there is more of a schedule,” said Anne, who is a freshman at Silverton High School. “It’s been an adjustment because he wants us to get our chores done right away when we get home from school and we are used to getting them done on our own schedule.”

Soldiers are so much easier to command than teenage daughters, Bitsie said, adding, “They get paid to listen to him.”

“None of us are good at obeying commands, not even me,” Kari said laughing.

What the Appleton women are good at is appreciating what Phil does – not only for his family – but also for his country. The girls all said they are glad he is home and making dinners again. Or adding his two cents on decorating.

“He was more serious when he first came back,” Anne said. “He’s gotten use to our jokes and us being cynical and sarcastic and he is starting to laugh more.”

Standing in line at Gear Up Coffee in Silverton on a December morning, a few women greeted Phil with a handshake or hug.

Simple acts of kindness from friends means to the world to the Appleton family because it shows them community members understand and respect the sacrifice their family has made by Phil serving in Iraq for a year.

Appleton’s unit was responsible for convoy security. He was first deployed in 2003 for a year – the beginning of the war – and was there during the final stages – leaving in the fall of 2010 and returning fall of 2011.

Believing a good leader is one who is willing to “sweat, get dirty, bleed and cry” with his soldiers, Appleton said he put himself at the same risks as his soldiers – going on 22 convey missions.

“The way I lead is I believe if I am not personally inconvenienced, I am probably not making the right decisions,” he said, adding that meant getting up at 3 a.m. to inspect troops ready to go out on missions.

A full-time employee of the Oregon National Guard, Phil is the executive officer for the 82nd Brigade of 2,600 soldiers.

Returning home has allowed him a sigh of relief.

“I enjoyed being in command while in combat, but it’s a big weight off my shoulders to return home,” Phil said. “These soldiers are in my hands so coming back it’s a relief to have them home.”

Experience taught Kari not to focus on the worry while he was. Instead, she made a list of all the “silly, little” things she appreciates about him.

“I wanted to make sure I told him how much I appreciate him,” Kari said, adding the list included everything from Phil going to Costco with her to pulling weeds and changing the filter in the refrigerator to making dinner.

Although he was in constant communication with his family by email, phone calls, snail mail or skype, Phil said there was some apprehension to come home and become re-engaged in family life.

“I knew what to expect this time but there is still some strain,” Phil said. “When I was gone, the family was on pause and being back it has fast forwarded a year. Things have changed.”

Things like Kat has her driver’s license and is preparing to go to college in the fall. Bitsie has her driver’s permit and as a junior is already thinking of college. Anne has her high school career planned out.

“I think it was an adjustment for him to come home and have all three daughters in high school,” Kari said.

“We are all different people than we were a year ago,” Anne said. “He has grown without us and we have grown without him. We are learning to come together.”

Both Phil and Kari said it was easier this time to reunite than it was the first time he was deployed in 2003 because they both knew what to expect.

“If anything, my one pride is in my girls because I didn’t have to worry about them,” Phil said. “They can think for themselves and all have plans for school and college.”

The challenge Phil and Kari are having is in the way they manage things, both said in separate interviews – with Phil being organized and accustomed to getting things done quickly while Kari is more low key and fine with things getting done when they get done.

“When he was gone and something didn’t get done, it didn’t get done,” Kari said.

“The biggest challenge coming home for me has been the ‘Honey Do List’ with a year’s worth of maintenance that has been deferred,” Phil said, adding he has painted his entire house with help and torn out the carpet to prepare for wood floors.

Whenever there have been concerns, Kari said, she or her daughters can talk to Phil about what’s bothering them.

“I think that’s what makes it easier this time is that the girls can talk to their dad about what they don’t like,” Kari said.

In November, the Appletons celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary. Phil also recently reached his 25th year in the military.

Not a day goes by that Kari doesn’t appreciate her husband and what he does for his family and his country.

“He lives the Army values like loyalty and integrity and has linked those values to the Bible,” Kari said. “Anytime you get to live what you truly believe and show it, it makes you a better person.”

What makes their family work and thrive is the eagerness to learn from one another and change, Kari said.

“That’s one thing I really respect about Phil is his willingness to change and that’s what keeps him really interesting,” Kari said.

The Appletons are grateful to their friends, neighbors and members of St. Paul’s Catholic Church who stepped in to offer support while Phil was away and welcomed him home.

Understanding the adjustment from military action to being home can be a challenge for some soldiers, the Army has a 30, 60 and 90-day event to help soldiers receive the assistance they need with finding jobs, receiving health care or counseling and more, Phil said.

“Our soldiers are like a three-legged stool, the soldier is the seat, the family, Guard and employer are the legs,’ Phil said. “We take time as leaders to help them over the hurdles they may be having.”

Both his family and he have been asked if the war in Iraq was worth it, Phil said.

“From my personal opinion, we liberated people from an oppressive government and gave them the opportunity to build a democracy within their society,” Phil said. “Are the Iraq people better off now than in 2003? Yes, anytime you have freedom and you have hope you’ve got to be better off. We did our job. We did the mission assigned and did it well to our satisfaction and hopefully we left the country better off.”

While Bitsie, Kat and Anne may not understand football isn’t about cheering for the team with the cutest players, they clearly understand the role their father has played in defending his nation.

“He’s good at what he does,” Anne said. “He is the right person for the job.”

“I have respect for what he has done for his country and for the time he has given up from his family,” Kat said.

Mostly, she and her sisters are glad he is home. Even if it means giving up the remote.

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