SALT LAKE CITY — Sgt. Chris Hatch deployed to Afghanistan two weeks after getting married.
Two kids and three years later, Hatch was home for good, but he continued to serve with the Utah Army National Guard for nine years.
"It took a lot to raise the kids while he was gone," said his wife, Heather Hatch. "It was hard. People say they understand, but unless you've gone through it, it's just not the same."
Now with her husband medically retired from the military, Heather Hatch cares for him, her three young children — ages 10, 8 and 2 — and routinely takes care of some friends' children to help out and bring in extra money.
The Draper family was surprised Thursday with free groceries for a year from Eckrich meats, Operation Homefront and Smith's Food and Drug. Eckrich spokesman Jeff Dennison said the family will get $260 a week to spend on food and other necessities — $13,520 for the year.
"It's our mission to thank, honor and support military families," he said, adding that Eckrich's parent company, Smithfield Foods, is "all about bringing families together."
Dennison said it is important for communities to honor military sacrifice.
"You think about what it means to a family to even be recognized, but then to get groceries for a year, they really deserve that," said Smith's President Kenny Kimball.
Kimball said Smith's welcomed the opportunity to be involved and tries hard to be part of Utah communities.
"We want customers to feel they can count on us," he said.
The family was more than surprised Thursday, knowing only that they were going to Smith's headquarters to be presented with football tickets for this weekend's University of Utah football game. Upon arrival, they were quickly outfitted with Eckrich merchandise and other gear, and put in front of news cameras for the surprise.
"It means a lot to feel appreciated," Heather Hatch said. "It's going to help a lot."
The attention was almost too much for the typically quiet and reserved family to take in, but their nervous smiles seemed grateful for the gift.
Operation Homefront aims to keep military families secure when they've returned from deployments to the communities they've worked to protect.
The Hatch family is further supported by the national nonprofit's Hearts of Valor program, which provides ongoing help to caregivers of military veterans. The program selected the Hatches based on various criteria, including their limited income and other needs.
Chris Hatch worked on weapons and the electrical systems of Apache helicopters during his service. He doesn't recall being in many dangerous situations, but he knew his job was important, especially to the pilots flying Apaches in Afghan skies during Operation Enduring Freedom.
He was happy to be thanked for his service and hopes people will continue to appreciate military service.
"A lot of military families would appreciate something like this," he said. "It's really nice."