Raymond left Waterford for deployment to Afghanistan exactly 11 months and 8 days ago today—and Jennifer is thrilled now his homecoming is so close she can actually countdown the minutes until she'll see him again.
"I am beside myself, relieved, almost speechless, crying like a baby," said Jennifer, as she tried to put into words the many emotions she was feeling on the eve of his return.
It's not as if the couple aren't accustomed to long separations. Staff Sgt. Zito's latest deployment to a Forward Operating Base in Tarinkowt, Afghanistan, with the Connecticut Army National Guard's 2/104th Aviation Unit was his fourth. He actually celebrated his 20th year in the Guard while in Afghanistan.
Zito was in Bosnia 2001 and 2002; stationed in Virginia in 2003 for 6 months awaiting deployment for Iraq, which never actually happened; and was deployed to Iraq 2008-2010 for 15 months. That particular separation was hardest of all, Jennifer said, because "we had three months without any communication."
Yet, even though she's used to it, Jennifer said, it never really gets easier.
"The hardest part when he’s away is missing my best friend," said Jennifer, choking back the tears. "And everything that goes along with living with and sharing your life with your best friend—waking up in the morning, having coffee together, falling asleep together, watching your children grow together, parenting together. It tends to be the simple things that we take for granted that you miss the most. He’s not going to be home for Christmas but you miss the little things so much more."
The couple has two children, Emma and Zoe, ages 10 and 7. When Raymond left for his last long deployment they were five and two. They were ages six and three when he returned. Jennifer said she was pregnant when he was in Virginia, awaiting deployment to Iraq. They were lucky that particular deployment didn't materialize, she said, because he was able to fly home in time to see the birth of his youngest daughter.
"He came an hour just before she was born, made it just in the nick of time," she said.
Raymond's deployment is hard on the kids, Jennifer said. Although the youngest was too young to really remember what it was like the last time he was deployed, Jennifer said, "this time, she'll remember."
"It’s tough, the first three months or so after he leaves are super tough," said Jennifer. "They miss their daddy. This time around, they were old enough to be much more aware of the safety, of the possibilities, so this was hard in that respect."
Jennifer said she gets through it thanks to much support from family, friends, and from the school. It helps, too, that she's able to stay in much closer contact with Raymond now than she was able to during his previous deployments. With emails and Skype, and special apps for her cell phone, she said they've been able to talk a couple of times every week since he's been gone.
"We are beyond fortunate in that respect," said Jennifer. "The first deployment, we didn’t have any of that stuff. As much as people say we give up a lot as military families, when I think about what other families went through in Vietnam and previous wars, it’s nothing. We’re so fortunate in having the means of communicating that we do."
Jennifer said she's also grateful that, unlike the troops who returned home from Vietnam to have people boo them, she knows her husband's service is appreciated. When Zito steps off the plane on Saturday, it will be to a welcoming committee of friends, family, and neighbors. Then it's home to Waterford for a pizza party, with more family and friends.
Jennifer said he may be a little surprised when he walks in the door. This deployment, she tackled a few home improvements, so he'll be coming home to a refinished deck, an outside shower, new living room furniture and a new kitchen table.
Jennifer said she hopes he won't mind the big celebration she has planned for him.
"He’s a very modest, humble person," she said. "I just feel like he deserves it."
If you'd like to send a message to Staff Sgt. Raymond Zito or take this opportunity to send a message to another loved one who is on deployment or returning home, please feel free to do so in the comments.
On a personal note, I'd like to say welcome home, Staff Sgt. Raymond Zito, and also say thank you to all the men and women who are deployed in dangerous places all over the world. We truly thank you, and your families, for your service and your sacrifice.