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Deployed SNCO watches daughter hear for first time

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Emily Smith, New Horizons legal operations superintendent, smiles as her 3-year-old daughter, Renee, receives her first pair of hearing aids May 9, 2014, at Belize Defence Force Price Barracks in Ladyville, Belize. Smith, deployed in support of New Horizons Belize 2014, was able to watch from Belize via video chat. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kali L. Gradishar/Released)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Emily Smith, New Horizons legal operations superintendent, smiles as her 3-year-old daughter, Renee, receives her first pair of hearing aids May 9, 2014, at Belize Defence Force Price Barracks in Ladyville, Belize. Smith, deployed in support of New Horizons Belize 2014, was able to watch from Belize via video chat. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kali L. Gradishar/Released)

BELIZE CITY, Belize -- "I'm very thankful for technology," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Emily Smith, New Horizons legal operations superintendent. "Still, my motherly instincts took over, and it brought tears to my eyes not being able to reach out to her."

Smith watched via video chat as her 3-year-old daughter, Renee, received her first hearing aids May 9. Smith, the legal operations NCO in charge at the 55th Wing, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., is deployed in support of New Horizons Belize 2014.

This is Smith's fifth deployment in 17 years, but it's her first deployment since her children were born.

"This deployment has been particularly challenging," said Smith, a mother of two. Smith and her husband, Todge, also have a 20-month-old son, Alan.

Renee was born unable to hear at certain pitches, to include high-pitched and conversational-level sounds.

"We didn't know before she was born that she was going to have Down syndrome, but we adapted quickly. From the beginning we only wanted the best life we could provide for her," said Smith. "Because we wanted the best life for her, we started baby sign language. It's hard to know what she's hearing and what she's not hearing.

"Her greatest hearing loss is with the high-pitched sounds, like car horns and smoke alarms. The housing office on base put up street signs in the neighborhood and added smoke alarms with flashing lights," she said. "She has more moderate hearing loss at conversational level."

It was determined where her approximately hearing level was after a series of hearing tests, and then the planning started for hearing aids. She was fitted for molds and received them in early May.

"This was very exciting for me since we've been waiting for this for three and a half years. Being able to hear her environment -- I wanted her to have that experience," Smith revealed.

On video chat with her husband, Smith watched as the audiologist placed the hearing aids in their daughter's ears.

"She tolerated the wearing of them; but then the audiologist turned them on. It was shocking and sad for me to see that she was very scared," Smith said of her daughter's reaction to the new sounds. "She had a fearful look on her face when they were turned on.

"Todge reached over to hug her, and I had to rely on my husband to be there for her in that moment of fear," Smith said. "It was sensory overload."

The audiologist recommended 10 to 15-minute increments to get Renee accustomed to the hearing aids and the sounds of her environment. Only about two weeks after that first experience with the hearing aids, Smith received an email from Renee's pre-kindergarten teacher regaling in Renee's progress.

"She said Renee wore both hearing aids in class for 30 minutes," Smith cheered. "I was very proud that she was able to tolerate sounds for that long because pre-kindergarten is not a quiet place.

"The goal is to eventually get her to hear during all waking hours with both hearing aids in," she added, "and she's making good progress. Her not being able to hear has set her back in some ways, so I was really excited at the prospect of what this meant for Renee's future."

Smith credits a number of people and establishments who have helped not only with Renee's progress, but with the family's situation during a deployment.

"Todge is doing a really great job with everything that's going on. I try to make sure he knows how much I appreciate what he's doing because he's taken on the role of both mom and dad while I've been gone," Smith said of her husband who is the 55th Security Forces Squadron Bravo Flight assistant flight chief, a job that often requires irregular shifts and hours. "His unit's leadership has been very supportive, which helps greatly."

Smith also acknowledged the incredible care at the Children's Hospital & Medical Center and the Bellevue Public Schools district in Omaha. From the school's transportation system and the teachers to the hospital's doctors, audiologist and staff, many have eased the stress of deployment for the Smith family.

"I'm very, very grateful for the community we have outside Offutt Air Force Base," Smith said. "They've all been very support of the military way of life.

Through all of the challenges of both spouses being military, deployments and a child requiring special care, Smith maintains a positive outlook on it all.

"We've been able to manage being joint military couple while having a child with special needs. We've both promoted, we've both deployed, and we've both gone to (NCO academy)," Smith exclaimed. "It is difficult being an EFMP family, but as long as you understand what that means and have an optimistic outlook, anything is doable."

The New Horizons mission, an annual exercise that provides training opportunities in the fields of engineering and health care, may only be a few months; still, Smith is eager to return home.

"I can't wait to see Renee with her hearing aids in person and see how she reacts to hearing the environmental noises that people take for granted," Smith said.


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