MARBLEHEAD — When Kat Knight’s husband, Ron, deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1991, she recorded and sent him audio letters. Little did Knight know that marriage and parenthood, long distance-style, would help define her life for the next 20 years.
With a comfortable home atop a hill off Lafayette Street and two sons, 18 and 25, the Knights are among those American families who have sent a loved one, sometimes loved ones, off to war while they keep the home fires burning.
Ron Knight, son of the late Marblehead High School athletic director Jack Knight, is a Defense Department contractor based in Massachusetts. He deployed overseas five times between 1991 and 2013, first as an Army Reservist and later as an Air Force Reservist and Defense Department contractor.
Kat and Ron Knight were apart for five consecutive wedding anniversaries. The family missed holidays and birthdays together but Knight is grateful his job as a logistician coordinating a wide spectrum of support for troops In Iraq and Afghanistan gave him more chances to communicate with his family than other troops cut off from family for extended periods of time.
“It sucks being away but I had nothing to complain about,” Knight said.
Jake Knight is a Curry College graduate and Jackson Knight will be a Marblehead High senior this year.
“My first memory of talking to my dad is through Skype,” Jackson Knight said.
A New York native, Kat Knight is the daughter of a single mother who scraped together pennies to buy milk for her family. They moved to Marblehead when Kat was 12 and where Ron Knight was living in the house his family lives in today. The couple met when Ron was coaching junior varsity basketball and Kat coached cheerleading.
Married for two years in 1991, Ron got the notice ordering him to Saudi Arabia on Kat’s 30th birthday. She made him make one promise.
“That when he got back we would start a family,” she said.
Kat recorded tapes to send him while driving weekday mornings to her job at a bank. She missed him, but deployment for Kat Knight meant less laundry and cooking and “I could have lamb chops any time I wanted.”
Ron Knight switched to the Air Force Reserve in 1998. Two years at the sprawling Air Force base in Dover, Del., were followed by deployment to Iraq. With young sons to raise and bills to pay, Kat established a family routine that revolved around never thinking about the unthinkable and focusing on what has to get done today.
“Knowing he was doing what he loved. Knowing it was important, kind of takes the decision making away. It just ‘is,'” she said.
Ron Knight returned home from Iraq in 2005 to face dual challenges: He needed to integrate himself as a largely independent individual into a tightly-knit trio who had been living with him only through the sound of his voice and face on a video screen.
He also encountered employers who were shy about hiring veterans who, in Knight’s case, were certain to get called up for service again.
“I lost jobs because I was deployed,” he said.
Before each deployment, Ron Knight told his sons how proud he was of them and reminded them to “listen to mom.” Jackson said he found it hard sometimes to get his peers to understand what life was like with his father half a world away.
“It’s hard to relate. I had friends who tried to and couldn’t,” he said.
Sent to Afghanistan in 2009 for the first of three deployments on air bases there, Knight quickly established a protocol of calling Kat whenever news of U.S. troop casualties was about to break. Frequently under mortar fire and in a base that had to repel a Taliban attack, Knight reached out to his family by email while wearing a helmet and flak vest.
Returning home after his second Afghan deployment to adolescent boys translated into tense moments.
“I would see kids over there wearing plastic bottles fashioned into shoes and my two were bitching that the Xbox didn’t work,” he said.
Ironically, shoes became a rallying point for the Knight family in 2010. Kat and the kids helped launch a shoe drive that filled their living room with footwear. They shipped 1,200 pounds of shoes to Afghanistan where Ron made sure they got to villages in a country where it can snow for days at a time.
“For most of them, it was the first time they had shoes,” Kat Knight said.
The Knights credit Marblehead Veterans Agent David Rodgers and what Kat called the town’s “huge history” of military service for providing support for their family and others who have experienced deployment.
In Lynnfield, members of the Lynnfield Catholic Collaborative connect with families with deployed members and recognize them by posting their names in the church bulletins for St. Maria Goretti and Our Lady of Assumption. Two families are currently listed in the bulletins, but up to 15 have been posted at one time, said Collaborative director of media ministry Marie Lagman.
“We want to relay that our faith is every part of our life. The concerns of our parishioners are our concerns,” Lagman said.
Ron Knight, who retired from the military in May, 2017, is grateful for “two great sons” and a spouse who kept his family strong and secure. But he has advice for his fellow Americans.
“We, as a country, have to understand our veterans more,” he said.