Many Happy Returns
Sunday, December 24, 2006
It was the thing that often kept him going during a dangerous deployment near Tikrit, Iraq. On scorching, dusty days and frigid, muddy days, Lt. James "Taylor" Riley would imagine strolling through an immaculately clean theme park, his son Liam on his shoulders, his wife Delacey at his side. All three in this scene were in their shirtsleeves, basking in a warm December sun. By then, Christmas lights would cover trees and bushes; carols would fill the air. He could see it in his mind.
Now, after a 14-month separation, all three pose together with Mickey Mouse, surrounded by red-bowed wreaths and Christmas trees. It's one highlight of their trip to Shades of Green, a Department of Defense-owned resort on Walt Disney World property.
For the Rileys and other military families who have been separated by war, such trips are not merely vacations. They are also reunions, celebrations of life, a means of reconnecting. On any given day, as many as 60 families at Shades of Green are on the resort's R&R package, meaning at least one parent has recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, says front office manager Sharon Galzeski. An additional number, which the resort doesn't track, are there squeezing in quality family time pre-deployment.
Taylor, 35, a full-time member of a South Carolina National Guard engineering battalion, had once agreed with Delacey, 37, that they should delay a trip to Disney until Liam was at least 5. But then Taylor was put in charge of a platoon clearing roads of improvised explosive devices. The couple realized they couldn't count on having all the time in the world together. And they needed to focus their minds on something positive.
Disney became that something.
Liam was just over a year old when his father left for the Middle East. He could repeat what he'd been told: "Daddy in 'Raq." But he clearly didn't understand what that meant. Once the family decided to take a post-deployment trip, however, Liam had a concrete idea to attach to his father: "When Daddy comes home, we'll visit Mickey Mouse."
Back home, searching the Web, Delacey stumbled on information about Shades of Green, which was acquired from Disney by the DOD in 1994, and in 2004 underwent a renovation and expansion that doubled its size, to 586 rooms. One of four resorts worldwide operated by the U.S. military for members of the armed services and Department of Defense contractors, it includes swimming pools, lighted tennis courts, a fitness center, a playground and a golf course.
As a recent veteran of the Iraq war, Taylor was eligible for a special R&R package that included breakfast and dinner with the already reasonably priced room of less than $100 a night. Delacey figured they could afford a whole week.
The resorts and other travel deals "help give the military community the same opportunities for a vacation as the people in the society they defend," says Dan Yount, chief of Army Leisure Travel Services. "We believe the benefits of travel and recreation are enormous." For people returning from a deployment, he adds, a vacation is "about getting reacquainted."
Taylor had done his best to maintain strong bonds with his family during two months of training in Washington state and 12 more in Iraq by calling home every day. He'd taken with him copies of four books that Liam also had at home. Each day, about 4:30 p.m., Taylor would line up at a phone booth, storybooks under his arm. Given the eight-hour time difference, that meant that soon after getting up each day, Liam would hear his dad asking, "What do you want to read?"
"The dad book" referred to a story called "Just Me and My Dad." "Where the Wild Things Are" became, in Liam's words, "wild book." Long before the deployment was over, Liam had memorized the books and would correct Taylor if he changed or skipped a word.
Liam learned quickly during the deployment that it didn't help to cry for his father. But at times he'd tearfully announce, "I need my daddy pillow." The pillow was a Delacey creation. She went to a shop near their small town of Edgefield, about 60 miles southwest of Columbia, and had Taylor's picture printed on a T-shirt. Then she cut the shirt into a rectangle and stuffed it. Liam slept with his Daddy pillow every night, his face pressed against the picture of his father's face.