War tests people.
It tests a soldier’s courage, strength and training. It tests the ability of a soldier’s family to endure in the face of long separation, loneliness and unrelenting worry. And war tests a community’s willingness to support the soldiers and families who sacrifice so much — and risk so much more — in its service.
In the case of Evergreen residents John and Melinda Tolentino, the soldier, the family and the community passed the test.
“My main concern, after the safety of my men, was that Melinda and the kids were being taken care of,” says John, 40 years old and recently returned from a 15-month tour in Afghanistan. “What was going on at home was constantly on my mind. It’s hard for people in the military to function without knowing that their loved ones are getting the support they need.”
“It was hard, and it was painful, but we were successful,” says Melinda, who pulled double-duty on the home front during John’s nerve-testing absence. “You can get through it with good support, and for that we’re grateful to this community.”
Of course, how a family copes with combat deployment depends first on the family, and the Tolentinos enjoyed some important advantages. For one thing, Melinda spent more than six years in the Air Force, becoming a highly skilled nurse and mustering out in captain’s bars. They met while both were stationed in Anchorage — John at Fort Richardson and Melinda at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
“I spent the millennium deployed in Saudi Arabia,” says Melinda, 38. “Having been in that environment, it relieved a lot of anxiety. We both understand that when you sign on the dotted line, you do what you have to do.”
For another, they weren’t forced to walk their lonely roads alone. When John received orders for Afghanistan in January 2007, Melinda and their children — Blake, now 5, and Savanah, now 6 — redeployed to the Stagecoach Boulevard home of her parents, John and Barbara Wingate. The move was a good one, providing Melinda with essential emotional and logistical support, giving John some much-needed peace of mind, and bringing the whole family within reach of Evergreen’s considerable resources. Local Rotarians sent John’s unit generous consignments of good wishes and good eats.
American Legion Post 2001 treated Melinda and the kids to a Blue Star Family barbecue, and Evergreen Fire/Rescue and Wal-Mart invited them to a Christmas shopping spree.
And Melinda drew tremendous comfort from her fellow congregants at First Baptist Church of Evergreen. “Faith is very important.”
Perhaps most importantly, a loose day-care network formed ranks to safeguard the children while Melinda worked long shifts as a nurse supervisor down the mountain.
“The biggest thing to me was help with the kids. When I said, ‘I’m drowning, and I need help,’ there were people who went out of their way to help me. And everyone at Bergen Meadow Elementary has been absolutely wonderful to us. I don’t know how I would have managed without them.”
Fact is, looking back, it’s sometimes hard to see how she managed at all.
“It was tough,” she admits. “Up at 4:30 every morning, get the kids dressed and ready for school, then a 10-hour shift and back up the hill. I’d get to bed about 9:30 with no break in between. But every time I started to feel sorry for myself, I just had to think about what John was going through.”
And John was going through plenty. As in any organization, the Army requires the most from the most capable, and Sgt. 1st-Class John Tolentino’s faultless credentials assured him a front-row seat in the Afghan theater of operations. Since signing on the dotted line in 1981, John had taken just about every course the Army offers, and received just about every certification and designation available to enlisted personnel, everything from ranger to pathfinder, leadership to reconnaissance. Not surprisingly, his superiors assigned him to lead a 75-man reconnaissance detachment in northern Afghanistan.
“We did long-range reconnaissance, which means you’re always out farther than anybody else,” John explains. “It’s very high-risk. At one point we came under 19 separate rocket attacks in 14 days. Whenever it got to be a lot to handle, I reminded myself that Melinda had it harder than me.”
“Each of us felt like the other one was pulling a greater share of the load,” smiles Melinda. “We each thought the other one was making the greater sacrifice.”
John and Melinda passed the test. Last June, exactly 20 years and 21 days after enlisting in the Army (veterans are invariably precise about such things), John traded in his duffel bag for a set of dresser drawers. He and Melinda bought a house on Hatch Drive, in a town that had, for 15 long months, been his family’s home in fact and his own in spirit.
“There was nowhere else we wanted to live,” says John, who earned a bronze star for his service. “The people here aren’t like the people anywhere else. This is where we want to raise our kids.”
After taking the summer to decompress, John is working toward a second career with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Melinda is getting comfortable in a new upper-echelon nursing position in Golden and pursuing advanced degrees in nursing science and health administration. She looks forward to a promising career in medicine, something she couldn’t do as long as John maintained the nomadic life of a warrior.
“It’s her turn,” says John. “With the sheriff’s department, I can work three 12-hour days, and Melinda will have the time to take advantage of all the opportunities she passed up for the last 20 years. I’ve had my career; now she can have hers.”
If the Tolentinos’ story is a happy one, it isn’t necessarily the rule.
“There were a lot of hardships just in my detachment,” says John. “There were divorces, and even a wife who threatened suicide. The Army offers more and more support resources, but it’s still really hard on the soldiers and their families.”
“The military has been very good to our family, and soldiers take a lot of pride in what they do,” Melinda says. “John had an important job to do. We’re not happy that it happened, but we made it through, and we were able to pick up right where we left off. We’re a little older, a little wiser, and a lot stronger. We’re just glad he’s home.”