Master Sgt. Marc Richard and his wife, Paulle, conduct their regular nightly bed checks on their two sons at the family’s new home in the town of North Pole, Alaska, while the outside temperature dips into the single digits causing a light layer of condensation to form on the windows.
Though the two do this every night, the couple takes a moment to hold hands, and soak in the moment as if it’s their last.
“I don’t want this night to end,” Paulle thinks to herself as their routine is anything other than normal this particular evening.
First, they say goodnight to their youngest son, Colton, who turns three in one week. On the floor beside him lays his collection of Marvel super hero toys, including his favorite — a Captain America shield.
Then the couple walks to the room next door, where their oldest and 6-year-old son, Conner, sleeps.
Standing in the doorframe, they pause for a moment as he rests. Conner will be the man of the house for the next six months when Richard leaves for a deployment in a few hours.
Stepping into the crisp night air and glancing back one last time at his home, Richard knows his family will survive just like they have on his five other deployments. Paulle will continue her full-time job as a school nurse, while also being the matriarch of the family in her husband’s absence. The kids will continue their weekly routine of attending Boy Scouts meetings and swim practice four nights a week. And Richard will continue teaching lessons to Airmen and those around him. The family, though geographically separated, will all press on because that’s the mindset they have — they’ll survive.
“What does Daddy always tell you, Conner?” Richard asks his son, as the boy sits in a chair in their living room, wearing his own miniature airman battle uniform, blending into the camouflage-pattern chair. “Press on, Dad,” Conner replies.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Richard says with a proud smirk on his face.
That “press on” mindset is what Richard teaches every day as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska’s Arctic Survival School.
Richard has been a SERE specialist for nearly 16 years now. As an instructor, Richard gives his students the mental tools and knowledge to survive bad situations in some of the harshest environments imaginable.
Though his wife occasionally reminds Richard that his family members are not his students, Conner can’t help but want to learn all he can from his father.
Conner can make fire.
“The first time I tried to start a fire, it took a few times,” Conner said. “But I told him I got this. Then I started it. I did that. That was me.”
Conner can catch dinner.
“Oh man, we got one, Dad,” Conner said, celebrating the success of a snare he and Richard set in their back woods.
“We’ll add it to the collection,” Richard responded, noting their freezer full of squirrels he and Conner have recently caught.
Starting fires from nothing, building shelters (including tree forts) and snaring game are just a handful of things Richard has taught his son, but there are times when Conner has taught him a thing or two.
“In a survival scenario, you may not have all the tools you want with you, so you have to be creative,” Richard said. “As a child, the imagination runs wild. My 3-year old thinks he’s a super hero. He runs around thinking anything can be a sword. If you look at past experiences of people who are out there in a real-life survival situation, you wouldn’t expect them to use things for what they’re using them for. And that boils down to imagination. Being able to look at multiple uses for items.”
Richard enjoys teaching Conner about survival, especially considering he’ll be gone for the next 180 days.
As Richard and Conner take down their snare, the boy looks at his dad with admiration and love displayed from ear to ear … the look most fathers hope their children will see them with.
Though Richard is proud their snare was successful, he’s also reminded that this will be the last time for a long while that the two will do this together, saying to Conner that he’ll have to wait until he gets back to set the snare again.
“You’re always thinking about teaching your kids for when you’re gone,” Richard said. “Things can happen any day of the week. I want to make sure they’re prepared as much as possible. I want to know that I did my best to make sure they’ll go far in life.”
Being a SERE instructor and being a father has similarities for Richard, both duties being charged with preparing people for life’s uncertainties.
“As a parent, just like with my students, there are lessons I teach that I hope they never have to use,” Richard said. “But I want my kids to see what life is like out there.”
Preparing for his deployment, Richard and his family drove into town to pick up some items when they came across a man, asking for some spare change. Instead of just saying no and continuing on their way, Richard and his wife used this opportunity to teach their boys the importance of taking care of others.
“We didn’t have anything on us at the time, but I said, ‘Hey, I don’t have any change on me, but if you want, I can pull over here to Taco Bell and get you something for lunch,’” Richard said. “You know, it was cold out, and it look like he needed it. I explained to both my boys afterward that people fall on hard times, and if you can do something to help, it’s your duty to pay it forward.”
As Richard and Paulle share their final hug and kiss for the next half a year, the front door shuts behind him for the last time. He walks to the car of his commander, who will be taking him to the airport, and looks back, knowing that Conner will now be the man of the house.
Richard has several favorite memories of Conner. The first time he was able to swim on his own during swimming lessons, the time when he got his first badge as a Cub Scout and saluted.
But there’s one memory that’s closest to his heart … this one memory that lets Richard know that he and Paulle have done something right.
While stationed at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., retreat would play at 5 p.m. just like it does at most bases around the Air Force.
“I was walking in the garage from work and retreat started,” Richard recalled. Conner, who was 3 at the time, was playing with his friend in their front yard on base. “When he heard that music start, he stopped playing, turned around and saluted. He may not understand the importance of what he was doing, but he understands that he’s supposed to do the right thing.
“I may be gone, but life still goes on. Paulle and I have done our job. They’re going to press on.”