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From the brink of war and back: Utah’s former first family reflects on what it’s like to have two sons serving active duty

Mary Kaye Huntsman and her daughter-in-law, Morgan Huntsman, share personal insights on what it’s like to be a mother and wife of service members

SHARE From the brink of war and back: Utah’s former first family reflects on what it’s like to have two sons serving active duty

Mary Kaye Huntsman is escorted by sons Jon Huntsman III, left, and Will Huntsman, right as they walk down the aisle during the wedding of Mary Anne Huntsman in Big Fork, Montana, in 2016.

Huntsman family

Mary Kaye Huntsman:

I’ll never forget the day we dropped our oldest son, Jon, off for his first military training at the Naval Academy. My husband put his arm around me and whispered, “Congratulations Mommy, you just gave your son to his country.”

I felt such pride, but also a huge lump in my throat as I knew this would be the first of many goodbyes over the years. Gone were the days protecting and bandaging up his skinned knees after a bike accident. He would now be protecting this nation. Little did I know that two years later we would go through this all over again with our second son, Will. Minutes before he was to line up and take the same oath to join the military, I slipped into the women’s bathroom hoping to get a few seconds of alone time to shed what I thought would be a quiet tear. Instead, I walked into a bathroom full of other moms shedding the very same tear. We wept together. No introductions needed to be made, no words needed to be spoken. I still think about those moms.

Every day since, I have worn a silver pendant around my neck reminding myself I’m not in this alone. It simply says on one side, “Lord protect them,” and on the other side, their initials and U.S. Navy. It’s a source of comfort and connectivity wherever they may be in the world. Jon quietly carries his own personal thoughts and reminders that are meaningful to him.

Today we are all feeling a sense of uncertainty with Iran. What happens next? So many questions remain, and hopefully in time our nation will come more together on how to move forward. The one thing I do know is that our country is unified in support of our troops. Our servicemen and women don’t ask who their president is or what war they are fighting — they just stand up and serve. It would be a great thing if we could package that up as an example in showing greater solidarity toward one another. Perhaps this could be the lasting legacy of the moment we now face.


At age 19, my husband took an oath of commitment to the U.S. Navy. Years later we fell in love and I knew that his commitment would become mine too. Big life decisions like where to live, how long we get to stay, and time spent together as a family aren’t made by us. They are in the hands of the greater purpose — of the commitment itself.

As spouses of service members, we share in each step of the military journey and are at war with our emotions along the way. We try to quietly keep life together and those overwhelming feelings in check at every turn, but especially in unsettling times or when the looming inevitability of deployment approaches.

There are seven stages in the emotional cycle of deployment: anticipation of departure, withdrawal, emotional disorganization, stabilization, anticipation of return, return adjustment and stabilization.

Dropping my husband off before leaving on his latest deployment with our 2-year old crying in the backseat was one of the hardest moments of my life, yet I had no choice but to be strong. For weeks I was in the “emotional disorganization” stage with my stomach sunk into the floor and searching for normalization. Life moves on and things start to normalize. The thing that helped me through the most was the support from those who also knew the feeling well.

When the news broke of the recent Iranian missile strike at the U.S.-occupied base in Iraq, I was instantly flooded with concern. I thankfully had knowledge that my husband was safe; but my mind shuffled to others I knew were deployed in that area and I shed tears thinking of their worried families. Moments later, I heard a pair of Navy jets in training flying overhead and looked at my phone to see five text messages from friends checking in after hearing the news. It was a powerful moment because I realized quickly that those of us with loved ones out serving are never alone! We are on a united front. The unity is a comfort I will never take for granted.

Most of us know someone who is suiting up to serve our country in unsettling times, and the overpowering emotion taking over as loved ones is something to be shared. We need each other in these times and to embrace the emotional cycle together.