Dave Oliver of Henrietta left his parents, wife and children to fight in a country where the natives won’t know his name, where Americans aren’t well-liked and where any day could be his last.

A military father embraces his family while the bus that will carry him away idles nearby, a reminder that yet another long separation is just moments away. The youngest child doesn’t understand, so he asks if he can go with daddy.

He is only 2. And, when his daddy comes back in a year, they both will have changed immensely.

Dave Oliver of Henrietta left his parents, wife and children to fight in a country where the natives won’t know his name, where Americans aren’t well-liked and where any day could be his last.

On Saturday, Oliver and an undisclosed number of troops of the A2-108 Infantry, based out of the Geneseo Armory, left for a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan. This is his second tour to the country.

Oliver, 40, has served in the U.S. military for 23 years. After graduating from Penfield High School in 1985, he joined the Army and served for four years. Now he serves in the National Guard.

In his final week at home, Dave Oliver and his wife, Arleen, sat down to finalize his will and discuss how the family will forge on without him for a year. Dave Oliver’s biggest fear isn’t the task at hand, though. It’s that his son, Ethan, might forget to love him.

For Kelsey

In January 2003, Dave Oliver was scheduled to be deployed to a base on Long Island.
When he was gearing up for his deployment, Arleen Oliver was nine months pregnant with their first child. The couple got married in 2002. Both of them had been married before. She has two boys from her first marriage, Tony DeVeto, now 13, and Nic DeVeto, now 10. At the time, Dave Oliver had no other children.

At one of Arleen Oliver’s doctor’s appointments about a week before he was to deploy, the baby’s heartbeat couldn’t be heard. That afternoon, she delivered a stillborn baby girl. They named her Kelsey.

Despite the sadness, grief and millions of other emotions, the couple agreed he should still deploy for the 11-month operation.

“We both agreed that he should go in a way to honor her, kind of finish the mission in her honor,” she said.

If he should die in Afghanistan, Dave Oliver said, he would like Kelsey’s ashes to be buried with him at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester.

The announcement

At the beginning of the year, Dave Oliver had a pretty good feeling he would be headed overseas sometime soon.

“We hit the rumors about January,” he said. “In March, they told us we can go tell our employers and our families that we’re going.”

When he told his wife, she was skeptical.

“My first reaction was it’ll probably never happen,” she admitted. “They even went back and forth on the date.”

The politically unpopular war in Iraq has led more and more federal officials to call for the withdrawal of troops. Following the report issued by Gen. David Patraeus last month, even the president has said America may draw down.

When Arleen Oliver heard the news, she hoped this meant her husband wouldn’t have to deploy again.

“I think we thought he wouldn’t go back,” she said, “especially now with troops supposed to be pulled out.”

She didn’t get her wish. Dave Oliver left Saturday. He will undergo two months of training in Fort Bragg in North Carolina then spend 10 months in Afghanistan. He is expected to return home next September.

This time, though, the odds seem to be in his favor. On Saturday, he was promoted to a sergeant major, which means he will spend less time in combat and more time at headquarters doing paperwork and giving commands. He will serve as second in command for his unit.

Arleen Oliver describes Afghanistan as “the lesser of two evils.” At least he’s not going to Iraq.

Even though this is Dave’s second deployment to the country, it doesn’t make it easier on his family.

His wife associates his deployment with the feelings she felt in the weeks after losing their daughter.

“Having the deployment really, for me, is losing Kelsey,” she said. “I think I’m still in denial. I can’t believe it’s happening.”

The final week

Dave Oliver admitted that while he doesn’t feel stressed out, he is scared of what the next year will bring.

“Not being able to be here for things is difficult,” he said. “My biggest fear is Ethan not remembering me when I come back.”

But Arleen Oliver assured her husband that Ethan won’t forget him, especially since they just bought Dave Oliver a new laptop with a Web camera attached.  He and his family will be able to keep in touch through the computer and still see and talk to one another.

The other thing on his mind, which he only tells his wife, is that he’s afraid Ethan will forget to love him, she said. But she assures her husband that Ethan won’t forget.

Dave Oliver will, however, miss Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays – all of the firsts in their new house. There is talk about him coming home for Thanksgiving, Arleen Oliver said, but it would be at the couple’s expense.

During dinner one night, Nic and Tony had to sit next to each other and fight over who will sit where. Nic refused to move down so Tony could fit in.

Arleen Oliver attributed the quarrel to the tense nature of the house, as Dave Oliver prepared to leave in three days. While the two older boys understand what Dave is facing, Ethan is too young to understand.

And while Arleen Oliver wondered who will fix the broken ice-maker on the fridge, who will help lift heavy boxes and help discipline the kids, Dave Oliver thought about managing the bills and finalizing his will.

A few days before he left, the older boys asked him to take them to play paint ball, an eerily similar version of Dave Oliver’s real-life charge. And although he was reticent to go back out after a day at the armory, his wife encouraged him to go, saying it would be a long time before he had the opportunity to play with the children.

Or, she added, it could be their last time together — forever.

Once there, they pulled on yellow face masks and loaded their guns. They divided into teams with the other players. While geared up, it was hard to tell who was who, but Dave Oliver was easily identifiable in his green camouflage pants.

As the teams spread out for the third game, the song “Feeling This” by Blink 182 was emitted from the speakers.

“Look to the past and remember and smile, and maybe tonight I can breathe for a while,” the words to the song rang out as the horn sounded again.

“But then all that it means is I'll always be dreaming of you,” the song ended softly.
The following night, Dave’s parents, John and Linda, and sisters, Ann Fazio and Jennifer, came over to spend time together as a family one last time.

After a dinner filled with Dave’s favorite foods including steak, twice-baked potatoes and corn, John Oliver offered his only son a toast. Most everyone held up red plastic cups filled with Patriot Red wine.

“Dave, we’re proud of you,” John Oliver said. “Stay safe. Come back to us.”

Everyone cheered and raised their cups to their lips in the spirit of love and patriotism.
Dave Oliver’s parents and sisters seemed to relish their remaining time with him.
Jennifer, who is Dave’s youngest sister, has her MySpace page dedicated to her hero.

The background has pictures of a blue star, which signifies she has a loved one serving in a war. The military gives flags like this out to families to hang in their home. A short title above a picture of Dave Oliver standing next to a large Army tank reads, “Win One for my Brother Red Sox!!” A countdown says there are 361 days until her brother comes home.

Later on, Dave Oliver pulled his father aside and went through his will with him.

“She’s also entitled to all of my retirement,” Dave Oliver said of his wife.

His father nodded. Like his son, John Oliver is also a military man, since he served in the Air Force for four years.

“I won’t tell you to make calculated moves,” John Oliver said. “I know you’ll do that.”

The Last Day

Stone-faced soldiers created a sea of camouflage shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday during a ceremonial send-off at the Geneseo Armory that included prayers and praise for the men and women who prepared to go to war.

A young child yelled,“My dad!” but not one soldier averted his gaze -- not one dared to look.

With Ethan in her arms, Arleen Oliver placed the badge on her husband’s uniform in honor of his promotion. The couple embraced and shared a kiss, then Dave Oliver ran his hand through his son’s thick brown hair and gave the toddler a kiss.

Dave Oliver’s sister was moved to tears.

“Let me tell you, it takes a special kind of woman to be a military wife,” Jennifer Oliver said.

In a bittersweet turn of events, delayed buses caused the family to wait nearly six hours between the ceremony and the departure.

Dave Oliver spent part of that time packing in his office at the armory. Among the items he took were a Red Sox baseball, a first-aid kit and baby wipes, which were meant to substitute for a shower overseas, if necessary.

As the family waited for the buses to arrive, Ethan sat in a stroller. Dave Oliver pulled the stroller back on its wheels and kissed his son on the forehead.

Then it was time for him to say goodbye to his wife and children.

Tony and Nic exuded bravery – for the moment.

“It’s just a matter of waiting for him to get back,” Tony said.

As the bus arrived to carry Dave Oliver away, his family made its way to the bus.

His parents stood together, holding onto each other. His mother’s face was struck with worry and fear. They stared intently at their son as if they were trying to capture his final moments and ingrain it in their memory forever.

“Daddy’s going bye bye,” Dave Oliver told Ethan.

The boy insisted on going with his daddy.

“I wanna go on bus!” Ethan said.

Dave Oliver chuckled.

“No, you can’t go,” he said.

Arleen Oliver stood with her arms around Nic, whose face streamed with tears.

“It’s going to go by quick, Nic, just like it always does,” she said.

Dave Oliver sat in the front seat of the bus. He leaned over the railing and waved goodbye to Ethan.

“Bye, bye, baby boy!” he called.

The bus door closed and the crowd stood to watch until it was out of sight.
“I just don’t want him to go,” Arleen Oliver said.

Rush-Henrietta Post writer Jessica Gaspar can be reached at (585) 394-0770, ext. 323, or at jgaspar@mpnewspapers.com.