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Behind the Scenes: Military Spouses Hold the Fort

Lincoln, Neb. -- -- Before Cara Loken met her now husband, she had little experience with the military. In the 15 years since they've been married she has learned a lot. There have also been a lot of challenging times.
Cara's husband, Maj. John Loken, deputy commander of the 155th Maintenance Squadron, has been a member of the Nebraska Air National Guard for more than 16 years and a member of the Nebraska Army National Guard for nine years before that. In that time, Loken has deployed multiple times for varying amounts of time, often leaving Cara home with her son from a previous relationship and the couple's youngest son.
Cara has learned firsthand the challenges military spouses go through. Each experience - good or bad - has prepared her to support her family and other military spouses regardless of the situation. For that strength and dedication, Cara was recently named the Nebraska National Guard's "Military Spouse of the Year."
Cara said her husband nominated her for the award based on all she's done for their family and the 155th Air Refueling Wing family.
"I help base-wide, I volunteer mostly for maintenance, but I've been everywhere," said Cara. "People call me and they know I will help. I started a Family Orientation to maintenance... which is a welcome to maintenance, for new families coming to the area, who were kind of scared when they got here - like I was.
"It's still overwhelming when you walk in here, it's huge, and you don't know anybody," she added. "We want their families to come join us, and to give them a little brief intro to what we do."
According to militaryspouse.com, Military Spouse magazine founded the Military Spouse of the Year award in 2008 to honor military spouses of all ranks and from all branches of service. More than a million military spouses support and maintain the home front while our service members defend this great nation. The Military Spouse of the Year award recognizes military spouses' important contributions and unwavering commitment to the military community and our country.
When Cara heard that she had won, she knew she could use her new platform to help even more spouses and families.
"I was surprised," said Cara. "I didn't want to look, but was hoping I won.... It was exciting. I was nervous. Now I can use that title to help military families, to get the word out."
Cara said most people know about what service members do, but they don't realize there are often family members left behind holding the family together however they can. To finally be recognized for her sacrifices behind the scene means a lot to her.
"There's a lot of work, I'm glad I was recognized," said Cara. "There's a lot of work volunteers do without recognition. So I like that there are people here to help that aren't military members but that can tell the families, it is okay. We also need more people here to help. I'm grateful I won. I'm glad I can represent everyone. I think we can build on this and continue to add more programs for the families."
In addition to the challenges of a spouse in the military, Cara's son spent time in the Army and also deployed. Thanks to those deployment experiences, the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program holds a special place in Cara's heart.
"Coming back, for spouses or children, it really is a hard adjustment," said Cara. "People don't realize that. But even when my husband came back, it was a struggle... we originally didn't know what to expect."
"I help with Yellow Ribbon, that's my favorite way to help," she added. "I pass that information on to people at the base... When my son was deployed, I had a mother whose son was deployed along with mine. She called me for support often. Well, her son was injured overseas. So I set her up with Yellow Ribbon and continued to help her. I still go to the Yellow Ribbon meetings. I still learn a lot."
In the end, the deploying military member may have the easier end of the deal than those left behind.
"Military members get a lot of recognition, and it's great," said Cara. "But a lot of stuff we do goes unrewarded. We take care of everything when you guys are gone. People don't understand that. We are the husband, wife, mom, taxi - everything - when members deploy. That's hard to do. They need more support when loved ones are gone. It's easy for you guys; you're just doing your same job. It's hard for us, because we take on more stress. No one really talks about what we go through. And I think people are afraid to talk about it."
Cara said that no matter how tough one might think they are, asking for help when a loved one is deployed, or following a deployment, is a way of showing strength.
"There were times I would sit then and cry, not really for any real reason," said Cara. "I would cry, I would get over it. And I'm a pretty tough person. I don't like to ask for help. But I know when I need help."
And Cara's advice to first-time deployers is to know their support system and rely on those people.
"That first deployment, if something broke, I didn't know who to call until my husband came back - when I went to a Yellow Ribbon meeting," said Cara. "I tell people to go to Yellow Ribbon, even if they don't want to. It's an all-day thing, but you may get that one little piece of information that you end up passing on to others to help them."
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