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Sgt. Lightner teaches his boys the meaning of rules and winning through a quick game of Monopoly.

Since January, a daycare has prayed for the safety of a military father of two of its students during his 75-day stint in southwest Asia before he finally returned home in April. Students at Little Caterpillars Development Center became pen-pals with U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Todd Lightner during his 2 1/2-month deployment, and sons Tyler, 6, and Aaron, 4, have been spending every minute with their father since his return.

Lightner said being in the military has its downsides and upsides.

“The hardest thing to leave is my boys and wife. I missed my youngest one take the training wheels off of his bike. It’s one of the smallest sacrifices I have to make. I thank my wife [Tonya] for what she does because it’s tough without a husband and a father while trying to lead a professional career and taking care of the family. I take my hat off to her and salute her,” he said. “Having a family makes it harder, but the military has taken care of my family and the community offers a lot of family support. You get to see different parts of the world, even though it’s not fair to my family. It’s nice to see your American country take care of you.”

Lightner’s decision to join the military came after living a life as a military brat, but he plans to push his sons toward getting a full education before they even think about joining the military.

“A military brat is someone who has grown up moving all over the place, from base to base. My dad was in the Air Force for 27 years and my brother retired from active duty after 21 years. I spent seven years in active duty and then I joined the Georgia National Guard Air Force Base. Since I’ve been out of active duty in 2000, this is the first time in my whole life that I’ve been in one place,” he said. “I’m not encouraging Tyler and Aaron to go to the military, but if that’s what they want to do then I stand by them. The little guys are going to college, though they don’t realize it yet. I want them to grow up with a strong education and grow up to be strong, smart men who do the right thing.”

With only two 15-minute phone calls allowed each week and constantly writing letters while in the desert, Lightner said learning how to Skype with his family brought him more comfort.

“We have wireless in certain areas, so I did Skype for the first time this year. It was more personal and I felt more relieved,” he said. “I completely understand what [Tyler and Aaron are] going through. I help them by sending a calendar with dates highlighted.”

The Lightners celebrated their fourth Independence Day together with a cookout and fireworks joined by military friends at their home on Lake Sinclair.

“We will celebrate like it was meant to be. I have the American flag ... out in the front. We have a live band and have some friends leaving for the desert and some are coming back from the desert, so we will celebrate their trip back home,” Lightner said Friday in anticipation of the holiday weekend. “There’s one big word that sums up what Fourth of July means to me — freedom. When I see that flag, it reminds me of those guys that sacrificed their freedom and now its my time.”

Lightner plans to skip next year’s stint in order to stay home with his wife and watch his boys grow up while going to Temporary Duty Yonder (TDY) throughout the year.

“I’m not going back again next year; I’m only on a volunteer basis. Every nine months I was leaving and my sons would always ask, ‘do you have to go to the desert again dad?’” he said. “I’m trying to enjoy them as much as I can before they grow up. When I was there this time, I kept sending letters about going camping. So when I got back, we went camping in Lake Oconee for one night. But we’re going to step it up a notch and do two nights in Helen next weekend.”

Lightner said the military has given him more responsibility and has molded him into a man.

“We really appreciate the Milledgeville community for taking care of us and we thank you for what you’ve done,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a job and doing it for my country. You should take advantage of what you have in America because after seeing different parts of the world, we’ve got it made. I can’t say anything bad about the military, but overall its been a wonderful experience.”

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