By Danielle DeSimone
Around this time last year, U.S. Army Capt. Justin Meredith was on deployment carrying out missions in the hot, arid weather of Iraq and Kuwait. Thousands of miles away, in snowy Indiana, his wife and young son eagerly awaited his safe return home. It was the middle of the holiday season – a time filled with traditions and making memories with loved ones – but Justin was spending his days on the front lines, missing out on special moments with his family.
That is, until he walked into the local USO center on base, where – through the help of a USO program – he could still “be” with his family, even while entire continents away. What at first seemed like an activity to pass the time soon became a Meredith family tradition of its own, and shaped Justin’s entire deployment experience.
A Family Separated by Deployment During the Holidays
Aside from the stress of their daily duties on the front lines, service members deployed during the holidays must also deal with the separation from their family members, often before their young children can even fully understand where their parent has gone or why they left. Bridging the distance and keeping both the military child and their service member parent connected throughout the many months of a deployment is crucial to maintaining strong family relationships.
This was a top concern for Justin during his deployment to the Middle East, particularly because his son, Jayden, has Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“My wife and I wanted to make sure, to whatever length that we could, that he could still identify with us [as a family unit so] there’s not going to be any integration issues going back,” Justin said.
The couple even got creative before Justin deployed and taped photos of their family together on walls at Jayden’s eye level around their home, so the almost two-year-old could be regularly reminded of his father.
“But it’s still really challenging,” Justin said. “There’s an emotional toll. When I left, he was nine months old and could fit my arms, and now he’s almost, what, two? He’s 19 months. So, it’s tough.”
How Bedtime Stories Became a Beloved Family Tradition
Justin’s concern of staying connected to his young son during their time apart was at the forefront of his mind when he was deployed to Fort Hood, Texas. As his unit prepared to mobilize and deploy to the Middle East from the base, Justin visited the local USO center, where he was introduced to the USO Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program.
Through this program, service members can record themselves reading a book to their child; the recording and the book are then sent home to that service member’s family, so that, in a way, they can be present for story time back home. Many USO locations have their own Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program room outfitted with shelves of books, decorations and props to help readers better tell their stories.
Justin admitted feeling a little awkward and clumsy while operating the camera during his first reading. However, he soon got the hang of it and fell in love with the program.
Once Justin arrived in-country for his deployment to the Middle East, he quickly became a regular at USO Camp Buehring in Kuwait, where he religiously visited every single day to record a book for his son. Now that his initial awkwardness in front of the camera was gone, Justin was recording more and more elaborate stories, pulling in props, doing different voices and performing as excitedly as possible for his son Jayden.
“The zanier that I am on the camera and the goofier the voices, the characters, the props, the more he just really engages with it,” Justin said. “My son is so engaged, and he’s so happy and he lights up seeing me.”
Initially, Justin was only sending books and recordings back home to his son. However, soon enough, the rest of Justin’s extended family found out about the nightly book readings and his nieces and nephews begged to get in on the fun.
“So, then it became like I was trying to read to a mass audience,” Justin said.
Soon enough, this audience expanded to Justin’s entire extended family in Sellersberg, Indiana, who began getting together every evening to watch Justin’s latest shipment of recordings and read along with their own books. Knowing how much Justin loved providing his son, nieces and nephews with story time through the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, his family decided to give him something in return for his birthday.
They created a “Just-In-Time Center” at his house in Indiana, which included a large television that the children could use to watch Justin’s reading videos, as well as shelves stocked full of books and comfy chairs for the family to gather around for the nightly book reading.
These nightly readings at the “Just-In-Time Center” were something that the entire family – children and adults alike – looked forward to. And for Justin, it was the best present he could have asked for: a physical space where his family could go to “be” with him, just as he visited the USO center every day to “be” with them.
“[It’s] why the USO became such a big part of my life,” Justin, who later become a USO volunteer, said.
How the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program Continued Past Deployment
Justin’s nightly readings to Jayden had a profound effect on the entire family, and helped him stay connected to his son. For his wife, playing Justin’s book recordings at the end of a long, stressful day not only helped keep Jayden busy, but also allowed Justin – from thousands of miles away – to contribute to their son’s education and life.
“It became a life-changing thing, a better way to stay connected, and it was great because while my wife [was] technically raising him [while I was deployed], I could use the books to help influence and mold and help him out with some of the initial things that he’s going through,” Justin said.
“And because of him probably needing more help than other children, than typical children, we can keep using these books long after I’ve returned home.”
After his time overseas last year, Justin has since returned home from deployment. As predicted, the “Just-In-Time Center” lives on.
Every night, Justin and his son Jayden go to their special reading corner in their family home in Indiana, where Justin delivers story time – only now, they’re live, in-person performances. The USO and the organization’s mission of connecting service members back to their homes and families influenced Justin’s deployment, and continues to play a role in his family’s daily life.
“From the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, to the cards and letters the USO had for soldiers, to all the games and socials – the USO had a big impact on me and my loved ones,” Justin said recently in November 2020, almost a year after his initial interview.
“I will always be grateful for the opportunity to volunteer, and for the services the USO offered to me.”
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