By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN Three-year-old twins Avery and Emery don’t understand the meaning of “one year” yet, but they do know it will be a long time before their daddy, Mike Klaphake of Delano, returns home.
Their little sister, 17-month-old Aniston, will have celebrated her second birthday, and the snow will have come and gone.
“That’s entirely the most difficult thing,” Mike said last Monday, the day before he left to train for his military deployment to Kuwait. “It’s not the mission, the danger, leaving the house . . . it’s missing the kids.”
Whenever Mike’s doing something for the military, his wife, Kristy, tells the children, “Daddy’s playing Army.”
That’s how they know he’ll be gone for more than one day.
“If we say he’s working, that means he’ll be home that night to tuck them in,” Kristy said, explaining that Mike also has a civilian job as an IT project manager in Edina.
Since his daughters were born, Mike has been away for training anywhere from two days to six weeks, but this deployment will be the longest time they’ve been apart.
Kristy created a countdown for the girls, using 365 colorful paper rings. Each one symbolizes a day, and the shorter the string gets, the sooner their father will be home.
The first time
Mike’s first deployment was a year after he and Kristy were married.
“He was in Baghdad from August 2004 until early 2006,” Kristy said.
As a platoon leader for a heavy kinetic mission in Iraq, Mike’s days were unpredictable and fast-paced.
“It was very dangerous,” he said. “I was a young officer, and it was a ton of responsibility coming at me all at once.”
At that time, the couple had an apartment in St. Cloud, where Kristy was finishing her last year of college. While Mike was away, she kept busy with schoolwork, student teaching, and two jobs.
Mike stayed in touch with Kristy using his Iraqi cell phone. Calling cards were especially helpful during that time, because it was $4 per minute if Mike made the call from his cell. The couple also had to coordinate their calls with the nine-hour time zone difference.
When Mike first joined the Army in 2000, he had no idea he’d be sent to the Middle East.
“September 11th hadn’t happened yet,” Kristy said.
Life in Delano
After Mike returned from Iraq, he and Kristy decided to build a house in Delano, because it was a shorter commute to Mike’s job in Edina.
Meanwhile, Kristy worked with at-risk students at Delano Middle School for two years, and at the Buffalo School District for two years.
In Buffalo, she worked with students with learning disabilities and co-taught biology and health.
When her position was cut due to a reduced special education need at the school, Kristy decided to pursue her long-held interest in the medical field.
Now, she is working on a master’s degree, with the hope of becoming a registered nurse.
Her tuition is paid for through the military, which is one perk soldiers receive after a certain length of service.
“After about eight years, we start losing soldiers with that experience,” Mike said. “That’s the time where many of them are going through life changes, like having kids or getting a better paying job. The military provides additional benefits to keep them.”
The year ahead
Mike is thankful that this deployment will be much less risky than his first one.
“We’re not actively seeking the enemy,” he said, explaining that the Army will provide security for convoys picking up US equipment in Iraq.
“We have a ton of equipment over there,” he said.
Originally, Mike was a lieutenant with about 35 soldiers in his platoon.
Now, he is a captain, with 130 soldiers in his unit. Typically, a unit has 80 soldiers, but more were needed for this mission.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity,” Mike said. “There are a lot of great soldiers out there. They have a good work ethic, and they’re tough . . . . There are a lot of tough families, too.”
Kristy shows her support of Mike’s military involvement by heading up a family readiness group for soldiers and their families.
She makes calls to the 400 people (about 225 families) in the group, and they meet monthly at various sites. Those who can’t attend have the opportunity to view the video-recorded meetings on the group’s Facebook page.
Mike is originally from the Albany area (west of St. Cloud), and Kristy was raised in northern Minnesota, near Aitkin.
In Delano, they’ve become friends with many of their neighbors, some of whom have offered to help with babysitting, lawn mowing, and snow blowing while Mike is away.
Friends are helping in other unique ways, as well.
One nearby couple, Kristi and Eric Engelmann, hosted a party for the Klaphakes the Friday before Mike left. A few days earlier, another neighbor, Dawn Laskey, took family portraits for them. Also, the Girl Scout Troop Darcy Roeser helps with created yellow ribbons for families to hang on their mailboxes in support.
“It can be difficult for military families to ask for help,” Kristy said. “If you know someone, don’t be afraid to offer. Extend your citizenship.”