NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Johnnie Chennault has no regrets about joining the Navy Reserve (search), even though it means he's going to Iraq later this month. But he does worry about not being around to help take care of his house full of 11 kids.
"Leaving my children, leaving my wife for so long — you're going to miss all the little things as the kids grow up," he said. Chennault and his wife, Ronda, have a full range of children of all ages growing up at their home in Springfield, a small town about 30 miles north of Nashville (search): Terr'i, 17; Stephen, 15; Jobie, 14; Joshua, 12; Zakari, 8; Johnnie IV, 7; Mikal, 6; Syerra, 4; Gracie, 3; Jakob, 1; and Nikalus, 8 months.
"Yeah, I have more kids than most people, but I don't think my kids are any more important to me than somebody who has two kids. His kids are important to him, too. I just have more to miss."
The Chennaults knew deployment was possible when he joined the Navy's Construction Battalion, the famed Seabees (search), two years ago.
Chennault, 29, had inquired about enlisting in the Army, the Air Force, the Marines and the Navy, but they all told him it was against policy to take someone who has that many children to support on a newly enlisted man's pay. The Navy, however, said that wouldn't matter if he joined the Reserves.
But with the war in Iraq, his unit was called up for duty, and he leaves Sunday for training at Gulfport, Miss., and then on to Iraq.
"After 9-11 it just seemed like a big need, like there was something else I could do," Chennault said. "My country has done so much for me and my family — why couldn't I take a little time out and do something for it."
His employer, Sears, will make up the difference in pay while he's in Iraq, an assignment Chennault thinks will last seven or eight months.
He has worked for Sears for nine years, mostly as an auto mechanic. But he recently took a promotion to assistant manager in the auto department.
"He's big-hearted, and he'd do whatever it takes to help someone else out," said his boss, Chris Nokes. "I wish he wasn't going. I just hope he comes home safe."
After entering the reserves, Chennault remained committed to his military service. He recalls that when the Navy announced that his unit was getting called up, his name wasn't on the initial deployment list because of a clerical error.
"I raised my hand and the first question I asked was, 'Why am I not going?' ... I said, 'Look, I don't think it's fair for my brothers and sisters here to be going. They have children, and their children are just as important to them as mine are to me.'"
Chennault's wife is supportive.
"We go to a really good church, and they talk in there a lot about the husband's and the wife's role, what the Bible says is the husband's and wife's role," she explains. "And my role is to support my husband. My mother told me when I got married, 'Your life is about him, and you need to be there for him.'"
They met while working on the General Jackson excursion boat and married when she was 25 and he was 19. Four of the children are hers from a previous marriage.
While her husband is away, Ronda Chennault will rely more on her parents and on their church, South Haven Baptist. The children will have to do more for themselves.
Still, she worries.
"I have trouble sleeping when he's not here. That's one of the hardest things," she said.
She knows she's going to miss him, but Ronda Chennault is proud of the example her husband is setting.
"It's important for the kids to see that he can't just weasel out of the duty that he volunteered for," she said.