As Chris Cockrell tossed the football with his sons in a shady yard in rural Saluda County last week, their unbridled joy gave a hint of how special Father’s Day would be this year – and how difficult the past year had been emotionally.
When answering questions just a few minutes earlier, he had been Lt. Chris Cockrell, the commander of an Army National Guard military patrol unit recently returned from the Balkan nation of Kosovo. Even when he spoke of the pain of missing a year of his children’s school and athletic milestones, his voice still had that edge of military structure that slightly stifles the true emotional impact.
“It’s tough when you’re missing the ball games and the practices,” explained Cockrell, 36. “You want to be out there helping them. My oldest boy played football last year, and I didn’t get to see any of those games.”
But a few minutes later, when stepson Blake Garner, 17, and sons Alex Cockrell, 12, and Chase Cockrell, 11, took turns tossing passes to their dad or trying to keep him from catching passes, everything was back to normal.
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The laughter said everything. Dad was back home.
Cockrell was among about 400 National Guardsmen who returned June 4 after being deployed last August with the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade as part of a multinational security force tasked with keeping the peace in Kosovo. A former Saluda County sheriff’s deputy and teacher of college law enforcement courses, Cockrell was well-prepared for the overseas duty.
“The job was easy,” Cockrell said. “I’ve been a cop on the civilian side for 12 years. The military part is the easy part. Being away from the family is the hard part.”
With multiple deployments overseas in recent years, plenty of National Guard families have gone through similar emotions. As those missions are winding down, fewer Guard members this year will feel what Chris Cockrell felt last Father’s Day. He got a break from several months of training for the Kosovo trip to spend some time with his family, but his mind was on the 45-soldier unit he would be leading.
“Last year, I was doing so much running around I didn’t get to enjoy (Father’s Day) so much,” Chris Cockrell said. “We’re not going to have that problem this year.”
A pontoon boat is prepped for a trip on Lake Murray. A new grill is ready for meat. There might not be room enough on either to accommodate the crowd.
Cockrell’s girlfriend, Stephanie Whitfield, has three children of her own. The youngest, 12-year-old Jessi Whitfield, is especially close with Cockrell, who refers to her as “baby girl.” Stephanie and Jessi drew pictures of their life back home and mailed them to Cockrell in Kosovo, where the colorful cards eventually covered a wall of his office.
Stephanie Whitfield served as the unit’s Family Readiness Leader, a position Cockrell volunteered her for. As a liaison between the Guard leaders and family members, she passed along information and offered others a sounding board for their concerns and frustrations.
“Everything falls apart as soon as they leave,” Stephanie Whitfield said. “First the car broke down, then the truck broke down, then the roof started leaking, and Jessi broke her leg.”
While those things would have happened even if Cockrell hadn’t deployed, if he was still around “I would have had him to rely on to fix the problems,” Whitfield said.
Now he’s back, with plenty of chores to keep him busy until the extended family takes a cruise in late July. Things are back to normal, or as normal as this large, non-traditional family can be.
Because Cockrell shares custody of his three boys with his ex-wife, the boys stayed with their mother while Cockrell was overseas. The boys agreed they had especially missed the football games with their dad.
Asked how the deployment impacted her, Jessi said she missed having all the boys in the house. As they showed a few minutes later while tossing the football, father and sons all are boys at heart.
Now that they’re back, Jessi said, “it makes the house more full.”