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Deployed dads celebrate Father’s Day from afar

Anaisa Reidel, 4, with a portrait of her

Anaisa Reidel, 4, with a portrait of her father, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Reidel, at home in Williston Park on June 9. Credit: Barry Sloan

Robert Reidel, Ryan O’Keeffe and Neil Theisen all know what it’s like to be separated from family on Father’s Day.

The Long Island men have missed out on family meals, memories and milestones while serving abroad in different branches of the armed services. But each has found ways to stay connected to their loved ones, despite the distance.

Off to Europe

Robert Reidel and his wife, Elisa, celebrated Father’s Day early this year. Robert, who will be deployed in Europe for the holiday, had no idea they were marking the occasion at all.

A few weeks ago, Elisa wrapped and hid a gift in her husband’s luggage. Robert opened it Tuesday night to find a note and T-shirt with his two children’s footprints on them.

He texted his wife: “I just read your card and got your gift because I could not wait. You really made my night.”

It’s mementos like these that help Robert — a sergeant first class in the Army Reserves — keep a piece of home with him while he’s deployed for at least a year, his wife said.

Robert has been a reservist for 19 years.

He left his Williston Park home on May 29 for his fourth deployment in the couple’s 7-year-marriage. He was stationed in Afghanistan while Elisa was pregnant with their now-4-year-old daughter, Anaisa, but he made it home two weeks before her birth.

Because his children can’t always see him, Robert made sure Anaisa and their 14-month-old son, Anthony, can hear his voice at any time, including on Father’s Day.

“My husband plays a huge role at home, including bedtime routines,” Elisa said.

She regularly plays the children a recordable book read by their father, “Under the Same Moon.”

Another favorite is “Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops,” a book by Jill Biden about what family life is like for a young girl when a parent is deployed.

Robert also placed Post-it notes with personal messages around his home before he left in May.

His daughter found one recently in her crayon bin that said: “I love you Anaisa — Daddy.”

For Elisa, notes in the laundry room or by windows read: “Stay strong” and “Time only moves forward.”

Awaiting his son’s return

Ryan O’Keeffe, a sergeant in the Marine Corps, typically celebrates Father’s Day with his dad, Brian, by going to dinner or taking a walk at Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, home to one of their favorite trails for seeing hummingbirds.

This Father’s Day, Ryan, 21, is stationed in Japan.

Brian, an IT manager who lives in Farmingdale, said he would consider it a gift if he’s able to speak with Ryan on the holiday.

The two rely mostly on Facebook Messenger to communicate when Ryan is deployed. Father and son also stay in close touch through a Marine support Facebook group for deployed families — a space to share photos, videos, messages and updates.

When Ryan returns from Japan, he looks forward to playing Frisbee golf with his father, one of their favorite pastimes.

Since a young age, Ryan was interested in being a Marine. He became one three years ago, following in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather. Brian believes it was fated.

“Ryan’s middle name is Francisco, after my best friend who was a Marine pilot,” Brian said. “My dad was also a Marine who went to boot camp at Parris Island.”

Home for Father’s Day

Neil Theisen, a member of the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Operations Group, returned to his Sound Beach home from Iraq in April.

Thiesen, 45, is especially grateful to be able to celebrate Father’s Day this year with his wife, Joanne, and three children, who range in age from 6 to 11.

He’s tragically aware that four airmen from the Westhampton Beach-based rescue wing will not be able to spend the holiday with family. They were among seven U.S. service members killed in a March 15 helicopter crash in Iraq.

“I know I am very fortunate to be home and to spend Father’s Day with my family, especially knowing and understanding there are so many dads on Father’s Day and moms on Mother’s Day who don’t have that opportunity, because they are serving our country,” said Theisen, who is a chief of standardization and evaluation.

On Father’s Day, he is looking forward to enjoying his wife’s home-cooked meal and, if weather allows, a family trip to the beach.

Theisen has been in the Air National Guard for 19 years, and has spent one Father’s Day away since becoming a dad. His latest deployment in Iraq lasted 60 days.

His time in the armed forces has been a sacrifice not just for him, he said, but for his wife and children as well.

Joanne, a preschool teacher, had her students and children prepare care packages for Theisen and his entire team while he was away.

“Regardless of how many electronic means we have to talk and text, getting that care package from home, that physical package, there’s nothing like that . . . physical connection to being home,” Neil Theisen said. “It’s just like in the movies, if everyone is getting mail, they’re happy.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ryan O’Keeffe’s last name.

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