Until recently, Tech. Sgt. Michael Exley could explain to his two young children why Mommy was gone in nice, simple terms: "She is in the desert."
"Are there camels?" they would ask.
Or, "Can we go, too?"
When Tech. Sgt. Lakisha Exley was gone for a year serving in Iraq on a forward-operating base, Michael kept his own worries for his wife's safety close, tucked away from their kids while juggling his own work at the Joint Base Charleston and raising the kids on his own.
He stuck with the desert story.
But their older child is 9 years old now, grown into a boy who loves his mom deeply and understands more and more what it means to have two parents serving in the active duty U.S. Air Force. And why Mom is gone a lot.
"He's starting to figure things out," Michael says. "He knows what our work is."
For Michael, his wife's sixth deployment means assuming a role at home he never imagined, one that turns around traditional family roles. While Lakisha is overseas, he holds down the home front and juggles his own duties at the base.
On this Father's Day, however, he insists it is all worth it - so that he and Lakisha can serve their country and so that he can be there for his wife and children when he knows many military parents cannot.
After Sept. 11
Michael and Lakisha met at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota when they both were 24. He had just returned from Saudi Arabia. She was a new troop.
It was before Sept. 11, before the world changed for military families, before their lives revolved around multiple deployments.
"After 911, everything changed," Michael says. "That's when our (operations) tempo went up, and she started being deployed more."
Lakisha is a traffic management craftsman with the 437th Aerial Port Squadron Traffic Management Office. She books passenger reservations, personal property shipments and processes shipping and receiving cargo. Michael works in quality assurance with the 437th Maintenance Group as an inspector.
When they married in 2001, they rarely were deployed. Today, Lakisha has been deployed six times, from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq. Right now, she is in Oman for six months.
After spending most of her pregnancy with Eli on bed rest, Lakisha was sent to Guantanamo Bay in 2007. Eli was 2 years old.
"Michael just told me he had it," Lakisha wrote in an email from Oman last week. "Michael always takes the stress of worry about our family off me. He makes it easier for to do my job to serve and protect our country."
Early on, they tagged in and out with deployments. She would come home, they'd spend a month together, and he would leave. But when he began working in quality assurance, his duties kept him at the base more, which gave their family more stability.
This marks the Ladson dad's third summer on his own with the kids. "It's what you have to do. It's sink or swim," he says.
The toughest stretch was in 2008 and 2009 when Lakisha was sent to training and then to Iraq.
"It was pretty hot at that point," he says.
The good news? "Being active duty alleviates a lot of that worry. I've been there, done that," he says.
If she didn't call when he expected, he knew it could just mean the phones weren't working. Or people were using them all. Or her detail that day didn't allow for it.
The bad news? He knew other realities as well: "The hardest part was worrying about her."
Hair and nails
Michael is a man's man: a head-shaven, weight-lifting technical sergeant in camouflage who loves to boat and inspects aircraft maintenance work for a living.
His days are spent mostly with other men, ones who mostly cannot relate to cutting out early to take kids to doctors' appointment, who haven't rescued a sick kid from daycare or tried to tame a little girl's curls at 5 a.m. He credits supportive supervisors for making it work.
His mornings start at 4 a.m. when he get the kids and himself up, fed, out the door, 9-year-old Elijah to the bus, 3-year-old Ava to daycare and then himself to base around 7 a.m.
He's also man enough to admit he has rainbow sparkle nail polish on his toenails.
Ava has become his feisty little comrade, the one who softens his edges when she needs a hug. So he couldn't say no when she pulled out the nail polish.
He didn't have an example for all of this. His own parents operated in pretty traditional roles. Growing up in the Finger Lakes area, his dad was a roofer who traveled and worked long hours. His mom was a housekeeper who was home more.
"My father didn't cook unless it was on a grill," he says, grinning.
So, like many men of his generation, Michael is crafting a new model of a dad. It's a learning process.
He calls Lakisha the softer side of their family, the one who cooks well and is more apt to sit and read and play games with the kids. He's a better keeper and enforcer of their busy schedules.
One day, he realized his kids needed him to stop, breathe and just spend time with them.
"I was too much a manager," he recalls. "Just dealing with Mom being out of the house is hard. When you take her out of the equation, it's a big loss."
So they take "morale days" every now and then. Michael took a day off work to take Ava to a spa recently to get her hair and nails done. He took another day off to take Eli to the movies.
"You've got to stop and slow down and say, 'OK, Mom isn't here to offset everything.' You've got to pick up Mom's role," he says.
Before one deployment, Lakisha showed Michael how to put Ava's thick, curly hair into a ponytail. It didn't go so well.
But after she left, he practiced and surprised her on Face Time to show he'd done it.
"My amazing Michael is an amazing father. He cooks, cleans, helps with homework, you name it, he does it," she wrote.
On top of his own full-time work at the base, he's taking classes toward an associate's degree in aviation technologies. It means nights of getting home after 5 p.m. to juggle his own homework with the kids' assignments, dinner, bedtime and all else that single parenthood requires. It's given him a whole new appreciation for Mom.
"She does more than you know," he says.
The family talks on Face Time every day if possible. Sometimes when Lakisha calls, Ava's little voice comes over the phone: "Is that my mommy?"
Nothing beats that.
The hardest part for Michael is knowing Lakisha misses being part of their daily lives.
"She gets sad," he says. "And it doesn't feel whole when Mom isn't there."
Almost every day it seems, a box from Amazon shows up on their door with something she ordered for one of them, proof she's thinking about them.
"Sometimes I worry about our son, Elijah, because he understands that mommy will be gone for a while and he also tells me he misses me. I worried that he is upset with me for going away," Lakisha wrote.
Elijah, however, wants to join the Air Force, too, when he grows up.
"In the end, it's worth it," Michael says.
Sometimes, Michael lets himself think about retirement. He can retire in four years, she in five. Lakisha can't wait to be home when the kids are out of school, to hear about their days and help with homework.
"It is little things like that I miss," she wrote.
She is scheduled to come home in late July, near their anniversary. They plan to hit Vegas to decompress and take the kids to Disney World.
"I am also ready to hit the water with our new boat!" Lakisha wrote.
And Michael and the kids cannot wait to have her there, to have their family whole again.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
Ava needs help with a game she’s playing on her father’s phone as he irons clothes. Tech. Sgt. Michael Exley is the sole parent at home raising Elijah, 9, and Ava, 3, while his wife, Lakisha, also in the Air Force, is on her sixth deployment. They live in Ladson.×
Elijah (from left), Michael, Ava and Lakisha Exley.×
Dinnertime with Elijah and Ava.×
Exley and Elijah watch television.×
Ava gets help from her father sweeping the kitchen floor.×
Tech. Sgt. Michael Exley fixes daughter Ava’s hair after bath time while son Elijah watches.×