For military families, photo sharing is a vital lifeline to family connection
Evey Koen
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When you marry into the military, you know you're signing up for a life of occasional-to-frequent separation. Not only are service members sent around the globe during deployment, but they also attend training schools leading up to missions, which can mean months away from their loved ones.

While we often recognize the sacrifices soldiers make with their service, it's easy to overlook the sacrifices their spouses and children make as well. When your significant other is gone for months at a time, maintaining a relationship gets complicated. And when a parent is gone for months at a time, you have to come up with creative ways to stay connected as a family.


Shannon Sandvig's husband, Gavin, was gone for 10 months with the Iowa National Guard just six weeks after their first son was born in 2005. Talking on the phone was difficult during that period because babies don't put their needs on hold for phone calls. They relied on texting and sending photos in the mail, but it's nearly impossible to keep up with the rapid changes and growth of a baby when you're away for most of their first year. "Even three months with a newborn baby is a big deal," says Shannon, "because they come home to a totally different child."

The Sandvigs now have three boys — ages 14, 13, and 11 — who have grown up with their dad regularly on deployment. When Gavin was sent to Afghanistan in 2010, the kids were five, three, and two years old. During that 11-month deployment, Shannon would send Gavin photos of the boys' daily lives. Their middle son also sent a stuffed chameleon named "Rocky" to Gavin so he could take pictures with it to send home to the kids.

Shannon Sandvig

Shannon says her kids got cell phones at much younger ages than most of their peers so they'd be able to communicate with their dad on his schedule. Gavin doesn't always know ahead of time when he can call or text, so they wanted the boys to be able to respond to his calls or messages immediately.

It's hard to stay connected as the kids get older and busier, though. When a spouse and parent is gone for a long period, family life still goes on, and keeping a deployed family member feeling like they're a part of the daily rhythms is a challenge. There's a readjustment period every time they leave, and another every time they come back home.

Gavin Sandvig reuniting with his three boys after a deployment in AfghanistanShannon Sandvig

Thankfully, technology keeps marching along, making it easier than ever for families to stay connected even at a distance. Smart cameras and systems like the Google Nest Hub allow you to easily share photos without having to go through social media; it's as easy as saying "Hey Google, share this photo with Mom." Since photos and videos are vital lifelines for families who are separated by deployment, the more options they have for sharing life's little moments, the better.

Like Shannon, Evey Koen also learned early that the dynamics of parenting with a deployed spouse is complicated. Her husband, Mike, an aviator in the Navy, was deployed less than a week after their daughter, Aven, was born. In all, he was only home for nine weeks of the first year and a half of Aven's life, which was hard. But Evey says parenting solo wasn't the hardest thing about Mike's deployment; the hardest part was making him feel like he was included in their daily family life.

"It was definitely emotionally hardest on Mike," Evey says.

The couple worked hard to find creative ways to keep him connected. Mike recorded himself reading stories, which Evey would play for Aven five or six times a day. They would mail back and forth clothing items so that Aven could get used to Mike's smell and Mike could experience that magical baby scent. Evey also took pictures of Aven with a stuffed photo of Mike — her "Daddy Doll" — at regular intervals so that he could see how she was growing.

Aven at 4 monthsEvey Koen

However, being out on a ship in the middle of the ocean, Mike didn't always have reliable access to phone or internet. He had a hard time feeling like he was missing everything, and Evey tried hard to prioritize his needs as a father. For example, when Aven said her first word at nine months old, Evey had to wait to tell the rest of her family. "Her first word was 'Dada' because I was always talking about Dada and there was no one around to say Mama," says Evey. "All of my family wanted to see it, but I couldn't post the video for my family to see until Mike had seen it, because I wanted him to feel like he was a part of our family experience."

Mike has been in the Navy for 28 years and is now teaching at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. He will retire next year at 50, so he gets to spend a lot of time with now seven-year-old Aven. Gavin recently found out he will be deployed with the National Guard again next year, so Shannon and the boys are preparing for another long separation and figuring out the best ways to keep Gavin in the loop. Shannon says Rocky the chameleon will likely accompany him on this deployment, too.

Here's to the men and women who serve around the world, and here's and to the families who support them from home.

Google is providing Nest Hubs to USO families to help them feel closer this holiday season. Join us in supporting the USO at uso.org/googlenest.

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