By Danielle DeSimone, Ashley DeBerry and USO Staff
Certain shared moments will always stay with you. Your first day of high school. Graduation. Moving away from home for the first time. Your wedding. The moment you find out you’re going to be a parent.
When a couple discovers they are expecting, the following months are full of milestones, typically experienced together. The days fill up with doctor’s appointments, shopping for baby gear, decorating the nursery and assembling a crib. There’s getting a first peek of your baby on an ultrasound and feeling those little kicks. There’s sharing the excitement with friends and loved ones as you plan for the new arrival. All of those moments add up to nine months of dreaming about a future as partners and as a family.
But for Jessica Dela Cruz, she shared these moments alone with friends and family in California while her husband, Jeb, awaited the big day thousands of miles away in Japan. A sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, Jeb was deployed to Okinawa for most of Jessica’s pregnancy – including the birth of their daughter, Eliyanna.
Like many military spouses, Jessica had to navigate a big life event and all the challenges that come with it without her spouse by her side. These kinds of situations can put a strain on MilSpouses and their families, which is why it is so important to support people like Jessica in their time of need. And so, while no one could replace her spouse during those months of anticipation, USO staff members around the globe supported Jessica through this journey whenever possible. Because whether they’re navigating deployments or deliveries, the USO is always by the side of the people who serve – and their military spouses.
Where Their Journey Began
Jessica came to central California from the Philippines when she was 9 years old and was still living there as an adult, years later, when she first met Jeb through a mutual friend. Jeb had moved to California when stationed with the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. The pair were friends for a while before they started dating, but then they had their first date on the beach in Santa Monica and it was an instant match. They married about one year later.
Jessica said that although a few family members had previously served in the military, she didn’t have any idea what to expect as a military spouse.
“You really can’t expect anything in the military,” she said. “Especially as a young military spouse, because you’re still learning, and California was only our first duty station.”
As a service member, you never know when and where you will be needed, and military families must be prepared to follow. Most military families move every two to three years, and it’s often left to the spouses to coordinate the details, like packing, moving, finding a new place to live and perhaps locating a new school and securing a new job.
“It’s a lot. I try not to overthink it, but it’s still a lot,” Jessica said. “It’s still a lot on you because you just never know where the Marine Corps wants to take him. You always have to be ready, and you always have to be in that mindset. You just do it.”
At the USO, we describe military spouses as “the backbone of the U.S. military,” and Jessica displays absolute proof of that.
“I always have to remember that I’m his number one supporter, that I have his back and want to be there for him,” Jessica said.
“So, the way I think about it, I just pray that God gives me that strength and guidance to be very supportive of him and give me that strength as well to be a mom and be there for Eliyanna.”
Waiting for Eliyanna ’s Arrival
At the time of her pregnancy, Jessica was grateful to still be in California to have the support of her parents, but, as she explained, there were also difficult aspects with Jeb being away on deployment in Japan.
“Sometimes, it was in the back of my mind, how he was missing these pregnancy milestones, and he couldn’t feel my belly whenever Eliyanna moved,” she said. “I wish he had been there for that.”
Jeb, unfortunately, could not return stateside for Eliyanna’s birth. However, the couple got creative and made sure Jeb could “be there” in his own way by having him on a video call throughout the delivery.
“I was very glad we were able to FaceTime while I was giving birth to my baby girl,” Jessica said. “My OB and the nurses were very understanding, since they knew my husband couldn’t [physically] be there for me.”
But despite the distance immediately following Eliyanna’s birth, the USO was able to connect the family by a simple gesture – the USO Schwab Center, which Jeb had frequently visited and volunteered at while deployed, worked with Jeb to send Jessica a diaper bag and a onesie with the USO logo on it, as a form of congratulations.
Jeb also celebrated his new parenthood in his own way by participating in a USO Special Delivery®: Presented by Johnson’s event at USO Schwab, where he got to bond with other expectant dads in his military community while he waited until he could return home to Jessica and Eliyanna.
These USO Special Delivery events essentially provide expectant military parents – whether they be service members or military spouses, mothers or fathers – with a baby shower, when they otherwise might not have been able to experience one. These celebrations include games, guest speakers and drawings for traditional baby shower gifts. Through these events, expectant parents can build meaningful connections with other military families who understand the challenges of pregnancy when separated from the support of loved ones, far from home and often apart from their spouses.
Afterwards, Jessica cared for their newborn baby girl Eliyanna on her own for more than a month until they all could be together as a family when Jeb joined them in California.
When Duty Calls, We’re With Jessica and the Dela Cruz Family
Soon after, Jeb was given orders to Okinawa once again – this time as a permanent duty station, not a deployment. Jessica, who had never traveled much beyond the Philippines and California, was a little nervous about starting over in a new home.
“When we first moved out here it was hard, since I didn’t really have any friends yet,” she said.
Another challenge with being stationed in Japan was that they had to leave behind all their family and friends in California who had been so supportive of Jessica throughout her pregnancy. For new parents, not having a strong support network can be especially challenging when juggling childcare alongside jobs and general tasks.
“I think [the hardest part is] just being far away from family,” Jessica said. “Because if Jeb is not here, and he’s in the field or on a deployment, I can only rely on myself.”
But luckily for Jessica, there was a team of support waiting for them to arrive.
During his earlier deployment, Jeb had frequently volunteered – even earning awards for his level of service – at the USO Schwab Center in Japan. As a result, he had grown close to the USO team there, and this time spent at the USO helped ease his time on deployment, away from his wife and daughter.
So, when Jessica, Jeb and Eliyanna first relocated to Okinawa for their three-year-tour, those USO friendships helped pave the way for the family – and, specifically, Jessica – to forge new friendships and transition to a new country. Before being stationed in Japan, Jessica had never used the USO before, but she was about to find out just how supportive the Centers – and their staff and volunteers – could be.
“Jeb volunteered all his free time to the USO, where he got to know [staff members] Maria, Megan and Linda,” Jessica said. “I had FaceTimed with them [beforehand], which was really nice. So, coming here wasn’t so bad, because I already felt welcome.”
Baby Eliyanna received a warm welcome as well.
“I call her ‘a USO baby.’ When we first moved here, we would spend a lot of our time at USO Schwab, and they would hold her and play with her,” Jessica said, explaining that not only did the USO team play with Eliyanna, but so did young Marines volunteering and hanging out in the Center.
In fact, the USO became such a big part of the family’s lives, that Eliyanna celebrated her first birthday at USO Schwab, where she was showered with gifts – including toys that are kept there, just for her, when Jessica and Eliyanna visit.
“It is a wonderful place for families and single Marines. It just felt like home.”
USO Centers in fact do aim to serve as a “home away from home” for service members and military spouses all around the globe. With more than 250 locations both in the U.S. and abroad, including in airports, on bases and even ships, these Centers are designed to make the people who serve feel welcome and supported – which can be especially important when stationed somewhere far from home and everything familiar.
USO Centers are typically equipped with comfortable furniture, free Wi-Fi, televisions, video games, music equipment, a kitchen stocked with refreshments and other amenities. Here, the USO also hosts programs and events to keep spirits high and to provide an opportunity for the people who serve, and their families, to bond with others and spend time together beyond the line of duty.
“It feels like a second home,” Jessica said.
Military spouses and families can often be the unsung heroes of the U.S. military community, with their sacrifices sometimes not as apparent as those of their service member spouses. But while they don’t wear a uniform, military spouses “serve” in their own way too, holding down the homefront and solo parenting while balancing their own jobs and responsibilities. And while these military spouses prove every day how adept and strong they are in the face of military life challenges, even the strongest among us deserve support.
That’s why, here at the USO, we’re with Jessica and all military spouses, supporting them in any way we can, and showing them how much we appreciate their invaluable contributions to the military community. Through the USO, they can feel the gratitude we have for their service to our nation.
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