PETAL, MS (WLOX) - "My boots are heavy, but not as heavy as my heart." Those were the words of Robert Swann when he left his family last week for a one year deployment to Afghanistan.
Robert serves in the National Guard and lives with his family in Petal, outside of Hattiesburg. If you drive by the Swann family home, you will see a yellow ribbon out front and the American flag by the door. Both will be there for a long time. This is Robert's third deployment since joining the National Guard.
The first time he left, their youngest child had just been born. When Robert came home, little Robert was 15-months-old.
Margaret said her son simply knew his father as "that man."
"That was like a knife stabbing big Robert, because he adores his children," Margaret remembered.
Little Robert is seven now and in the first grade. He is also the spitting image of his father when he was little Robert's age. Now, the little guy calls his dad, "my best friend."
The Swanns have two other children, both girls. The oldest is 18 and the youngest is Catherine, who is 11.
"Last year, he really wasn't there for my birthday and Robert's birthday," Catherine said.
She also told us she spends a lot of time thinking about her papa these days.
Like any military member, Robert has missed so much through the years. For the family, with each deployment, it just gets harder.
"It is a loneliness you can't describe, honestly. You stay emotionally exhausted even after eight hours of sleep," Margaret said.
The family even has what they call "Daddy's box." The kids put various things in there, and send it off to their father when it gets full. It's a way to stay connected with the husband and father who is 7,000 miles away serving in a war zone.
When asked how often she thinks about him, Robert's daughter, Catherine, sighed and simply said, "All the time, all the time."
Her mom, Margaret, described it as, "A hole that just stays empty until he is back."
She calls her husband her 'best friend' and said it is like trying to function with one arm instead of two.
Robert won't step foot on American soil again until the summer of 2011. The Swanns are already counting the days.
"We will be overjoyed. We will just want to hold him and hug him and kiss him," Margaret said.
Little Robert said, "The first thing I will do is tell him, 'I love you, Daddy.' And then I will just hug him."