By Danielle DeSimone
Brett Schmidt sits in his quarters on Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in the heat of the summer. The afternoon is the hottest part of the day here, with temperatures hitting as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. For those concentrated afternoon hours of direct sun, Brett explained, everything rises in temperature – the sidewalk begins heating up, buildings’ exteriors are hot to the touch and even inside his quarters, the heat is everywhere.
“I’m in a bit of a wind tunnel, and there are times where it literally feels like the inside of a big hairdryer, with this hot air just flying through,” he said.
Surrounded by an arid, brown desert and the low rumble of military machinery in the background, Kuwait feels completely different from Brett’s home in Wisconsin.
However, it’s not just the weather or landscape that makes Brett’s current day-to-day so different from home. It’s also the fact that there are more than 6,000 miles between him, his wife Tessa and their two children.
To be apart from your loved ones is one thing. But to be apart from your young children for nine months, deployed to another country in a region that can require undertaking stressful and high-pressure missions, that time apart can be even more difficult.
But throughout this deployment, Brett was determined to stay connected to his family. And through a library of books, a passion for reading and a little help from the USO, he has done just that.
From daily life in Wisconsin to a deployment in Kuwait
Back home in Madison, Wisconsin, Brett normally lives a daily life that is not much different from his neighbors. He works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He has a wife named Tessa, who is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin - Madison’s School of Education. And the couple have two children – a seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. With Tessa being a former Wisconsin Librarian of the Year, and Brett himself a proponent of reading, the whole family has a passion for reading.
“The kids love it, and bedtime books have become a cherished family routine,” Brett said.
But as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Brett’s daily life also sometimes includes putting on a uniform, packing his bags and answering the call to duty.
This is Brett’s fourth deployment, but the majority of his other deployments were before his children were even born.
“I was mobilized stateside 2020-2021. I was in Staten Island, New York,” Brett said. “So I’ve been gone for a fair amount the past couple of years, but there, it was a lot easier to stay connected because I would typically fly home about once a month and they came out a couple times to New York City and then we could FaceTime.”
However, this deployment is the first time in which his children have truly had to handle his departure, which was also quite sudden, as Brett actually volunteered for this deployment to step in to replace someone who could not deploy for medical reasons.
Research has found that many military children struggle with higher stress levels and anxiety during their parent’s deployment, showing that the strain of separation, even at a young age, can affect military kids as well.
“Here, given the distance and given the time zone issues, that’s been more challenging,” he said. “So, the USO Reading Program has helped fill the gap somewhat.”
How the USO Reading Program has helped Brett stay close to his children throughout deployment
In previous deployments, including one to Afghanistan, Brett recalled visiting USO Airport Centers while traveling back and forth to his deployments, but he had not delved much deeper into the many USO programs designed to support the people who serve.
However, this deployment to Kuwait has been different. Soon after his arrival, Brett found out about the USO Reading Program, which he could use at USO Camp Arifjan, the USO Center on base in Kuwait.
Through this program, service members can record themselves reading a book to their child; the recording and a copy of the book are then sent to that service member’s family, so that, in a way, they can be present for story time back home.
“As soon as I learned that it was an option, I’ve been taking advantage of it ever since,” Brett said. “Every week, I have gone over to the USO and picked out two new books to read for my kids.”
As a self-proclaimed family of readers, the USO Reading Program has been extremely exciting to Brett and his family back home.
“We’re strong believers in literacy – my wife actually runs a children’s library,” Brett said. “Back home, my wife and I, we typically read three books to each of the kids before they go to bed – more if they earn ‘bonus books.’ But obviously I can’t do that given that I’m here, so this has sort of made up the difference.”
The program has been especially significant for Brett and Tessa’s seven-year-old daughter, who has struggled somewhat with reading this past year. However, her teachers believe that Brett’s consistent reading videos and book deliveries are keeping his daughter engaged and inspired to learn to read more. Even from far away, reading with her dad has been helping.
Brett also explained how the USO Reading Program even ties into Brett’s wife Tessa’s career of promoting literacy in children. Additionally, he noted how his deployment has affected his wife as well – as the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin - Madison’s School of Education, Tessa has been juggling solo parenting their two children while also balancing her full-time job back home.
Through it all – the time difference, the distance, the stress of both parents’ jobs – Brett and Tessa have worked hard to keep their family connected through their shared love for reading.
Their daughter loves books with dragons and animals, their son wants to listen to any book involving vehicles. Since he left for Kuwait in December 2022, Brett has read and sent over 50 books to his children back home, providing them with the familiar sound of his voice before bedtime as they read books “together” every night.
That is why programs such as the USO Reading Program are so crucial to keeping the people who serve and their family members connected through deployments. Even while miles apart, Brett, his wife and their two children are still able to create memories together through the simple act of opening a book and pressing “play” on a video. And that is why, no matter the deployment location, the USO is committed to being with people like Brett, all throughout their military service.
“The USO Reading Program has really helped me stay connected with my family while overseas,” Brett said. “Given their ages, now is a particularly important time for them with literacy. The USO Reading Program has helped me feel like I’m doing everything I can to help them out while I am deployed. I am very much looking forward to reading the books once I’m home – with any luck, I’ll be home in time for both of their birthdays.”
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