Colonel Matthew Haber sat at the foot of his daughter’s bed, repeating the words, “I love you” as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Anna Haber was just 11 years old when her father broke the news: He was being deployed to Stuttgart, Germany and would be away for four months. She lay in bed that night, watching her father cry for just the second time in her life, but she was still too young to really understand.
“At that age, it doesn’t set in until the next day when your dad isn’t there,” said Anna, now a junior marketing major at Mason. “At that point, you can’t just call and tell him to come home.”
Col. Haber spent four months in Germany, leaving his wife to care for both Anna and her younger brother, Michael. Both children were becoming increasingly involved in sports and choir but Jane Haber, Anna’s mother, did what she had to do to keep everything as normal as possible.
“It helps having good kids,” Mrs. Haber said. “You have no choice. You just do what you have to do. But the kids made it easy.”
Still, though, his time in Germany would pale in comparison to what was coming.
Col. Haber watched from a classroom in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as news outlets from across the nation showed clips of American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the center of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Shortly thereafter, he watched an obscenely familiar shape tear through the south tower.
“The moment I saw that, I knew it changed everything,” Col. Haber said. “It changed everything in my life. It changed the way my kids grew up and the way they lived their life. That moment changed everything.”
Shortly after Sept. 11, Col. Haber was deployed for a six-month tour to Iraq, again leaving his wife to take care of his two children.
“The military is a dangerous profession,” Col. Haber said. “When you sign up, you know you could go to war and be away from your family. But it’s not real until it happens.”
The time away from his family was a struggle. It was something, he says, he never imagined he would have done in the moments prior to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Still, in order to avoid another move prior to Anna’s senior year in high school, Col. Haber volunteered for a second deployment to Iraq.
“I felt really guilty,” Anna said. “Being a military kid, I knew I could easily handle moving for my senior year. You just do what you have to do and don’t think twice about it. But he decided he was leaving –and he was leaving because of me — and I felt really guilty about it.”
Col. Haber continued: “The one thing that I feared was that, God forbid, something happened to me. Not because of what would happen to me, but because Anna would live the rest of her life and blame herself.”
Col. Haber deployed for Iraq on Feb. 1, 2009, during the spring of Anna’s junior year in high school.
As gratitude to her father, Anna tried a variety of new things during her senior year. Anna captained the varsity cheerleading squad and was voted homecoming queen, both things her father said he never dreamed of happening when he left, and later joined Michael in singing the National Anthem at a basketball game.
“Without actually saying, ‘Thank you,’ it was my way of showing Dad I appreciated the fact that he volunteered so I could stay in Vegas,” Anna said. “It was all just a big thank you.”
Col. Haber stayed connected with his family with frequent Skype calls, oftentimes calling his wife at soccer games or while the family was in the midst of dancing to Michael Jackson, sliding along the wood floors in their house.
“When he can see us joking around and laughing, it makes him feel good too,” Anna said.
About six months in to his second tour, Col. Haber returned home for a two-week rest and relaxation period. The family spent much of their traveling throughout California, taking college tours throughout the state so that Col. Haber had some input in his daughter’s college decision.
The rest and relaxation period end all too soon and the family, again, had to say goodbye to Col. Haber as he was deployed to finish the last eight months of a 14-month tour. While saying farewell at the airport, Anna hugged her father tightly, not allowing him to leave her arms.
“That is when you realize it’s impacting your kids,” Col. Haber said. “It’s impacting your wife, too. It’s hard.”
After completing the final eight months of his tour, Col. Haber returned home to his family.
“Coming home is the best feeling in the world,” Col. Haber said. “It feels good to be in a country where people appreciate you. It’s just overwhelming and you can’t wait to get home.”
He received his new orders for the Pentagon in Washington D.C. The Habers moved into their home in Chantilly, their sixteenth home in Col. Haber’s 25 years in service, shortly before Anna arrived for the first day of classes at Mason.
And despite having an excuse for family turmoil, the Haber family is closer than ever. Col. Haber recently retired from the U.S. Air Force after 25 years of service and the family is now building a permanent home in Chantilly.
“It makes you truly appreciate the family you have when you have them,” Anna said. “We say, ‘I love you,’ every time we get off the phone or when we see each other. And every single time that we say it, we truly mean it.”