Elizabeth Hough hugs her son, Adrian, 4, while they celebrate with daughter Emmaline (left), 6, on Wednesday at Carroll Area Child Care Center and Preschool.
Elizabeth Hough hugs her son, Adrian, 4, while they celebrate with daughter Emmaline (left), 6, on Wednesday at Carroll Area Child Care Center and Preschool.

August 7, 2017

As her kids sat just feet away, playing and unaware, Elizabeth Hough stood hidden behind a door and held her breath.

At a nod from someone inside, Hough slipped into the room and watched as two small mouths dropped open.

As cheers of “Mommy!” rang out, Hough was accosted and knelt down, still wearing her Air Force uniform, to gather her kids into her arms.

Red, white and blue balloons, in star and heart shapes, several announcing “I love you,” bumped unnoticed above their heads.

When Hough picked up her kids from the Carroll Area Child Care Center last Wednesday, she was hugging them for the first time in more than seven months.

Adrian, 4, who leapt into Hough’s arms and clung as though he’d never climb down, grabbed her red-manicured hand: “I like your nails!”

Emmaline, 6, was a whirlwind, leaving her mother’s side for a moment to point out a picture she’d drawn hanging on the wall before she rushed back to grab Hough’s hand once again.

They had much to tell.

Adrian had celebrated a birthday while Hough was gone. Emmaline had learned to swim.

But she’d hear about all that later. For now, the hugs were enough.

Mom was home.



DOUBLE DEPLOYMENT

When Travis Hough finally asked Elizabeth out — they were no older than 14 — she’d been waiting.

Elizabeth, who grew up in Lidderdale before moving to Carroll in high school, had a crush on Travis for ages. They’d talk at the Carroll Recreation Center during the summer. But he always had a girlfriend.

Until he didn’t — until he finally asked her out.

Their moms would drop them off at the movie theater before they could drive. And soon after they both graduated from Carroll High School in 2007, they were married.

Both having decided to join the Air Force, they moved to Oklahoma. They now live in O’Fallon, Illinois, both working at Scott Air Force Base — Elizabeth works with the Air Mobility Command, while Travis works as a sexual assault representative.

Then in October of last year, Elizabeth, 29, learned she soon would be heading to Qatar — her first deployment.

She left just after Christmas.

Just weeks after her departure, Travis, also 29, learned he was to be deployed as well. He’d go to the United Arab Emirates right after Easter, months before Elizabeth’s planned return from Qatar.

“Usually they try not to deploy (married couples) at the same time, but it does come down to the needs of the Air Force,” Elizabeth said. “We tried to get his (deployment) delayed till I got back so the kids wouldn’t have to be without a parent, but they weren’t able to fill his position with someone else, so he had to go, too.”

Although they’d hoped it wouldn’t happen, they had planned for the possibility of a double deployment. Grandma would take the kids.

So they headed back to Carroll.



A CARROLL INTERLUDE

For Mary Arrowsmith, Elizabeth’s mother, having her grandkids with her for an extended period of time was a delight — if an exhausting one at times.

One of the first orders of business for Arrowsmith, who has worked at New Hope Village for decades, was to find a day care where the kids could stay during the day.

It just happened that spots were open in the needed grades at Carroll Area Child Care Center.

“We’ve had military families before, but never with both parents gone,” said Nikki Heuton, the center’s director. “It was new for Grandma — it was new for us.”

For Elizabeth in Qatar, being separated from her kids was difficult — especially on the day in June that Adrian turned 4. She couldn’t talk about them at work without crying during the first few weeks.

And it was tough for the kids at first, too — watching Mom leave, then Dad. When Grandma dropped them off at the child care center, 3-year-old Adrian wondered if she was coming back.

But they talked as much as possible. Elizabeth woke up early each morning to call her kids. Because of the time difference, those calls took place before their bedtime each night.

Once they got into a routine — bath times, toothbrushing, bedtimes had to be figured out — things settled down a bit, Arrowsmith said. The kids soon were brimming with stories about an activity they’d completed at the child care center, swimming lessons or a trip to the library.

And the special moments abounded. When Arrowsmith took her grandchildren to see the Fourth of July show in Breda, the kids felt led to comment on each and every firework.

For Grandma, those months together — exhausting as they might have been — were priceless.

“It was an adventure at my age, having such young kids and doing the activities all over again,” Arrowsmith said. “It meant a lot to be to be the one caring for them when they needed someone.”



REUNITED

Elizabeth’s reunion with her kids last week wasn’t the family’s only surprise this year.

Travis, who needed to attend a conference at Elizabeth’s base in Qatar just before her birthday in July, set up his own secret visit, conspiring with her coworkers to procure flowers and chocolate and to call Elizabeth into a meeting room with a computer-repair ruse.

When she walked in, her husband was sitting at the desk. They had five days together before he returned to his own base.

And the kids, being kids, went to day care to excitedly announce to their friends, “Our parents are back together!” — leaving it to adults to explain that, no, the Houghs hadn’t been separated or divorced.

When Elizabeth wanted to surprise her kids upon returning to the United States, employees at the child care center helped to arrange the reunion.

The kids had changed. They looked older, used different words.

Adrian was a different age. He’d graduated from Paw Patrol to Spider-Man.

Emmaline had lost two teeth — although she’d tried to wait on that until her mom got home. The 6-year-old swam like a fish, the same little girl who had been scared to climb into the pool months before.

“We’re gonna miss those kids,” Heuton said. “You look at them and have to respect them — they’re just troopers.”

Elizabeth and the kids will head back to Illinois soon, start the school year and wait for Travis to come home from his own deployment at Thanksgiving. Elizabeth hopes to set up a similar surprise reunion for the kids when their dad comes home.

She’s looking forward to seeing him have the same moment she had last Wednesday — that first instant of seeing her kids’ faces again that will be etched in her memory.

“Being able to hold them and hug them — it was the best feeling ever,” she said. “I’d been waiting for that moment since the day I left.”