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JDF dads tell how they balance job and family life

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate Editor - Features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 15, 2014    

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WITH overseas deployments, months-long training courses, night and emergency duties, and a job description that says they are always on call, military dads are away from home and their families more than they'd like.

Even special days — like Father's Day which is being observed today — are not guaranteed days of rest and relaxation for the men who are always at the ready to "deter and/or defeat threats against the Jamaican state and/or its interests".

Warrant Officer Class One Anthony Lysight puts it bluntly: "As the soldier, you're never there enough."

It's an expression that's echoed throughout the ranks of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). But rather than allow their absence to cripple their role in parenting, the soldiers we interviewed said that more than anything, it forces them to find ways to make up for it. So they maximise time spent with their families whenever they get the chance. This means using the phone... a lot, and at least one officer said his family's strategy is to use only one car so that travel time doubles as family time.

Relying on their wives, extended family members and even colleagues, is also a crucial part of the mix.

"You have to rely heavily on mom, in my case my wife Karen, who has been a tower of strength in my life," Lysight told the Jamaica Observer.

He outlined the story of a training course that took him out of the country for almost a year. While there, his best friend, one Warrant Officer 2 Parris, picked up the slack where his children are concerned.

"None of you in the military are able to father our kids alone. You need friends, family. You need people around you who have love in them to share and it has worked in my case," he said.

Lysight will mark 26 years in the army in July. He is now Regimental Sergeant Major in the First Battalion, also called the infantry, which makes him the senior most enlisted person in the unit. His core duty is to ensure that the soldiers of the four companies under his watch fall in line as far as discipline goes. He also plays that disciplinarian role at home.

"I'm fortunate for having good friends around me and a wonderful wife who manages the kids. She's there with them every day; drops them to school, picks them up from school. I'm the disciplinarian who comes in and lays down some of the rules, and if they're not conforming there are times when I have to speak a little louder than normal and then things will fall into order," he continued.

That notwithstanding, he credits his children — 21-year-old university student Debon and 11-year-old Shaneil — for not making his job as a father difficult.

"As my son grew I saw myself as fortunate because the sons of soldiers, police and pastors are said to be not well-behaved, but I've never had any real issue. And it's the same with my daughter.

"To not get bad reports from school is a plus. I've been blessed to have what I think are two wonderful kids. They're doing well in school, and that's the thing because the only time I get to do homework is on weekends and over the telephone when mom can't handle it or when it's a mathematical problem, and not as often as I wish I could... so I really have to give credit to my kids for being good kids because they don't have that manly supervision on a regular basis while I'm so engaged," he said.

As well have things have gone, however, Lysight does feel some regret about not being always able to get up with everyone in the morning, drop off and pick up his kids from school and not having been the one to take his pregnant wife to hospital on either occasion that she has gone into labour.

"I do have some regrets... but based on the kind of kids that I'm fortunate to have, I can't say that with a straight face because it has worked out. I've not seen us short of any love and if anything, the absence sometimes makes us bond more when we come together," he said.

It is something with which father of two, Sergeant Michael Webster, can relate.

Webster, a technician in the JDF's Telecommunication and Instrumentation Department who sometimes has to overnight at other bases in order to service remote cell sites, for example, said that as long as he is home he devotes weekends to his boys -- 13-year-old Gianluca and four-year old Alessandro.

"The weekends are dedicated to them as long as I'm not at work," he said. "We go to the barber together, all three of us, and we work around the house together."

Some of the other things they do together include visiting their extended family, watching TV and playing computer games. Also, the dad explained, he plays a central role in getting school assignments completed and he is a regular at Parent Teachers' Association meetings.

"If I'm not there my wife will assist him [Gianluca], but if my assistance is needed then we do it by phone. If it's a situation where he alone does the homework from early when we're not there, then I have to check it and if it's not up to scratch he has to get it done again. Even where group work is concerned, we don't leave any stone unturned," Webster told the Sunday Observer.

That attention to academics paid off handsomely for Gianluca a few years ago when, at age 10, he earned a grade 1 in the Caribbean Examinations Council-administered Human and Social Biology even before sitting the high school qualifying Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT).

This, without going to extra classes or having private tutoring.

When he did the GSAT in 2012, the Old Harbour Primary School past student received a 98 per cent average and got into his school of choice — Ardenne High. He was one of 16 students who won Sagicor scholarships for exceptional performance that year.

It was no surprise for Sergeant Webster, who told the Observer in a previous interview that when he took home the exam syllabus to gauge Gianluca's knowledge base, his son already knew half of the course content.

But it was important to prepare, a characteristic deeply embedded in his psyche.

"I am keen on planning and preparation, so once he's home in the evening we have to start thinking about school the next day, clean shoes, homework, pack bag. I do the pressing at home so I'd iron his uniform from sometime during the weekend. Even before I press my clothes, I make sure that the kids' uniforms are sorted out... [But] there comes a time when there are no weekends and there are few days when there is no getting home early, depending on duty," he said, explaining his rationale for "making the most of the time" with his kids.

"You can be on duty for 48 and 72 hours and won't be going home, so, as a father, you must ensure that everything is going well and the phone is the best option... [For example], a hurricane will definitely not be catching me at home, so the preparation is already in place," he said.

Asked if his approach to raising a family might have been different were he not member of the JDF, Sergeant Webster conceded that it might have been the case.

"What the JDF provides, I don't think any other organisation is able to provide because what we do here is make mountains out of mole hills. We also have scarce resources and we have to manage them to get good results. Time management is key in everything that we do and it really spills over into the day-to-day activity at home.

"When we talk (among ourselves), everybody has similar experiences. We are always thinking beyond the normal aspect of things. We're anticipating what might happen later, what might happen tomorrow, what we need to put in place now."

The force's civil/military co-operation and media affairs officer Major Basil Jarrett knows a thing or two about that, having got a newfound appreciation for time, structure, discipline.

"When you're a member of the JDF, it's almost impossible for you not to be affected personally by the systems, practices and culture of the force, so what you find is that whether intentionally or not, you take home some of the behaviour of work, specifically discipline and time management, and I've become somewhat of a tyrant at home if you ask my wife, because 'where is that happy-go-lucky, easy-going guy that she married?' Now, all of a sudden, we need to be on time, we have to go to bed on time, the kids need to brush their teeth on schedule, so I've become sort of a disciplinarian at home, which, in my former life, I wasn't much of."

Jarrett is father to six-year-old Jace and two-year-old Alexis. To compensate for time away, he devotes weekends to them. He recently posted a photo on Facebook of Alexis pinning coloured hair clips on his toes. It was her version of a Saturday morning pedicure.

"This is the best deal I could negotiate," he posted. "Saturday morning football on TV, but only if I agreed to have my toenails clipped. At first it didn't sound like a bad deal but this was NOT what I had in mind. HAPPY BIRTHDAY LEXI".

He is also heavily involved during the work week.

"I'm a part of the routine every morning and one of the things we decided to do is have one car, which has its drawbacks, but the family travels together. We go to school together, then I drop my wife off at work, or she drops me off if she needs the car," he stated.

Asked if, given his experience in the army, he would encourage his kids to enlist, Major Jarrett gave a resounding 'yes'. He said that Jace, who often accompanies him to work, already loves the army, and while Alexis still has some time to go, he thinks she will grow to admire the organisation too.

"I hope so. I'd be happy if he didn't take (as long as I did)," he said of Jace.

Jarrett is a specialist in the JDF. He enlisted in 2009. In his former life, he lectured at City University, New York and London (UK); Northern Caribbean University, Mandeville; the University of Technology, Jamaica in Kingston; and Cass Business School, UK.

"I wish I had done it sooner when I had less seniority, less responsibility, and more energy," he said, hinting that being a father and husband are themselves very demanding jobs. Thankfully, he added, he has the support of an understanding wife, Charlene.

"That's really important because she knows how important this is to me professionally and personally," said Jarrett.

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