EAST COUNTY—While Technical Sgt. Donald Allen shot photos in Africa for the Air Force, his 4-year-old son, Jacob, wore his father’s cologne and hair gel every day, back home in Sarasota.
“It’s his way to cope and remember him,” said Sarah Allen, Donald’s wife. “He smells like daddy every day.”
After a seven-month deployment with the 4th Combat Camera Squadron in Djibouti, Africa, Allen came home early Dec. 20 and crashed his children’s K-4 Christmas Party at Tabernacle Christian School. Expected to finish his latest and longest deployment in January, Allen, a volunteer reservist Air Force photographer, had arrived a bit early, to the surprise of his children — Jacob and 6-year-old Nathalie.
When Allen entered the classroom door wearing his camouflage uniform and brown boots, the two were slow to embrace him, as they sat still on small blue chairs fitted with American flags.
Finally, Allen walked closer to his children and hugged each individually before Jacob said, “Are you my daddy?”
“Their reaction was kind of surprising,” Allen said. “I expected the typical thing where they come running and say, ‘Aw, Daddy, Daddy,’ but I think they were overtaken by it. They weren’t sure what to say.”
Deployable at a moment’s notice, Allen had been separated from his family before, usually a few months at a time.
But his latest seven-month deployment took Allen to 16 countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo. Allen and his five-man unit, made up of photographers and videographers, carried guns and Nikon cameras, as they transmitted imagery from the battlefield to the Department of Defense.
Jacob and Nathalie followed their father’s latest mission weekly through Skype and email. Sarah Allen started a ritual in December in which her children placed a candy cane on their Christmas tree every day to count down the days until their father returned.
Allen presented the final long and shiny candy cane to his children at the party.
Allen traded months without communication with his family, at times, for time at home this holiday season. The family traveled to Virginia to visit family on Christmas Day, as well.
“This has been a tough one,” Allen said of his deployment. “I missed my oldest daughter’s high school graduation. I missed another Valentine’s Day. But we’re the lucky ones. Not everyone gets to go home for Christmas.”