In an understated manner, Matt and Andi Williams — a couple who clearly don't like to draw too much attention to themselves — described the range of emotions they're experiencing as Matt, a civil engineer with the U.S. Navy, prepares to ship out to Iraq to assist with ongoing reconstruction efforts.
Early next month, Lt. Williams is expected to leave for a month of training in South Carolina, before beginning a six-month tour in Iraq, where he'll be embedded with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His assignments could range from working on water-treatment facilities to building roads and schools.
During that time, he'll not only be separated from his wife, but also from their daughters: 2-year-old Danielle and 1-year-old Eva.
"It's not easy to leave — I think lots of service members can tell you that. You don't want to go, but you have your job to do, and you know that you have to go," said Williams.
The couple recently sat for a weekday morning interview at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, where they belong and where Danielle is enrolled in preschool; Eva is set to start next year.
Williams is currently stationed at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command office in South Philadelphia.
The couple's home in Fort Washington is an interfaith one; she's Jewish, he's Catholic.
Andi Williams grew up in Long Island, where for her, Hebrew was the primary language: Her parents were born in Europe but had spent the bulk of their childhoods in Israel.
Matthew Williams was raised in western Kentucky. Shortly after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 2001, he entered the Navy's Officer Candidates School and was commissioned in the Civil Engineer Corps the week after Sept. 11.
The couple met in Washington, D.C., where he was stationed and she had just completed a master's degree in public administration at American University. They were married at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, where a rabbi and a priest conducted a joint ceremony.
They explained that their children are being exposed to both faith traditions. The family celebrates Jewish and Christian holidays and have attended Mass, as well as synagogue services.
But they said that they've been welcomed as an interfaith couple at Tiferet Bet Israel, and have been interwoven into the fabric of the community. Andi Williams said that many synagogue members have reached out to her and offered to act as part of a support network, even though it's difficult for nonmilitary families to relate to what she's going through.
"It's awkward to feel like the only one going through this, but I also feel a great sense of support," she said. While her parents currently live in Florida, she does have several close relatives who live a little over an hour away in New Jersey.
Andi encouraged her husband to visit the preschool and speak to the kids about his mission. In addition to addressing three different age groups, he wrote and had printed a short children's book that illustrates the rebuilding and humanitarian efforts undertaken by the military. He's contacted the Navy about it, and asked if his book can be published and distributed to other families, since he said that there's a dearth of materials available to very young children. There's been no decision as yet, he said.
The synagogue also made a video of his appearance and gave it to the couple as something for the girls to watch during the time that their father is away.
"It was a way to to give my daughters something to see later on, while Matt is gone — what he will be doing — and [to] give them a frame of reference for it," she said, adding that the girls don't fully grasp that their dad will be absent for so long. The couple's saving a fuller explanation for a time closer to Matt's departure date.
This isn't the first instance where larger, historic events have collided with their family life.
In 2005, Matt was deployed to a base in Rota, Spain, when Andi was pregnant with their first child and living near a Naval base in Gulfport, Miss., which they called home for about two years. He returned just weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The couple evacuated to Orlando, Fla., and later to the Washington, D.C.- area, where they stayed with friends. She gave birth three weeks after the storm hit.
Matt was there for the birth of his daughter, but less than a week later, he was back in New Orleans assisting with the recovery and rebuilding efforts. His wife and newborn daughter didn't rejoin him until more than two months had passed.
"I knew Matt was going back to help rebuild our community. That was something to be proud of," said his wife.
Asked how she planned to cope with her husband's absence, Andi said that she wants to return to work full-time. She also hopes to get back to long-distance running, a hobby that's fallen by the wayside in recent years. But she doesn't allow the focus of conversation to stay on her for too long.
"Obviously, our children are our primary focus. I have a one-day-at-a-time attitude," she said, wondering aloud how she'd have managed without the presence of her very involved husband. "There will be some hurdles when Matt first leaves."