Joey Jacobsen's youngest daughter, Paige, was born during his first deployment in Iraq. She's 3 now, and Army Captain Jacobsen has been away at war for more than half her life. He's missed other important childhood milestones, such as 6-year-old Hailee's first lost tooth.
But today, the family is together. The little girls grin as they pose for pictures beside a 6-foot-tall Mickey Mouse statue whose chest is painted in stars and stripes. They keep grinning as they embrace their dad, tell shyly of the "welcome home" signs they made for his return less than a month ago, and imagine lunching with princesses at Walt Disney World's Epcot and swimming at Typhoon Lagoon.
The family is on vacation at Shades of Green, a military-run resort on Disney property outside Orlando, Fla., where soldiers and their families often come for a break from war and the burden of their long separations. The Jacobsens may be on vacation here, but their mission is serious: to reconnect in five short days.
"The goal is to just sit back and watch my kids' faces and emotions," says Jacobsen, a military intelligence officer who knows he could face a third deployment. "It's really to allow my kids to be kids, allow them to have their mom and dad with them and enjoy themselves."
Shades of Green is the only resort of its kind in the continental United States, operated at no taxpayer expense by the Army's Family Morale Welfare and Recreation Command, based in Alexandria, Va. The resort is for Department of Defense employees and their families. Some guests are retired, some are in civilian jobs, some are on temporary leave from tours, and some, like Jacobsen, are fresh from long deployments.
With rates starting at $80 a night, rooms here are much cheaper than at other Disney-area resorts, and theme park tickets are discounted, too. The rates are meant to fit into a soldier's budget.
The soldier families that visit Shades of Green can expect a typical Disney World experience, with perhaps small differences. For example, the staff is aware that the meals they are serving may be the last a family ever has together.
"It's harsh, but it's what our soldiers are facing," says James McCrindle, general manager. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make Shades of Green's relevance all the more poignant, he says.
The Army announced last month it will add three months to the standard year-long deployment for all active-duty soldiers in the Middle East, another blow as times of rest between tours get ever shorter.
Shades of Green is one of four resorts worldwide run by the Family Morale Welfare and Recreation Command. The others are in Germany, South Korea, and Hawaii. The first opened in Germany in 1945. Now, to meet demand at the resorts worldwide, the military is considering a fifth resort at Fort Story, Va., Mr. McCrindle said. The resorts are run not with taxpayer money but the funds they generate. Any profits are reinvested into operating and maintaining the resorts, keeping costs low for guests.
Military members in a survey overwhelming called for a resort in Orlando, and Shades of Green opened in 1994. The resort consistently runs at or near capacity, despite an expansion completed in 2004 that doubled its size to 586 rooms. Overflow guests stay at nearby hotels that Shades of Green has contracts with. The resort offers two pools – one in the shape of Mickey's head – two PGA golf courses, and shops and restaurants.
Jon Vashaw is here for four days with his family. Home on a two-week break from Iraq, he is an Army captain and physician assistant who already has spent nine months there and will serve six more when he returns. His wife, Linda, and three children changed so much while he was gone that he hardly recognized them when he first saw them. The boys, ages 7 and 4, love Peter Pan, and Mr. Vashaw is looking forward to seeing their excited expressions at Disney's Magic Kingdom, where there is a Peter Pan ride.
The family is still getting used to being together again. Before a meal, one son prayed for his dad's safety, forgetting his dad was sitting right there. Vashaw is rediscovering his role as a husband and father.
"My family comes first. The hardest thing about all of this isn't the danger or being hurt. It's the separation," he says as his children press tight against him for hugs with big smiles. "I know I'm a soldier, but I'm a dad first."
Jacobsen likes Shades of Green because to him it's a comfort knowing other guests are going through the same emotional, complicated process his family is facing.
"It's warming because you can see the people who just got back," he says. "You can see that connection. You can empathize with that feeling because you know what that feels like. Just enjoying each other. Just getting to hold them."