Her mother is in Iraq with the Air Force. Her father, also a career soldier, is far away too. Natalia Azzoline, an eighth-grader in Port Washington, deals with life’s challenges on her own with a maturity rarely seen in a teenager.
In January, when her mother returns from Iraq, 13-year-old Natalia Azzoline will have a decision to make — finish eighth grade at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port
Washington or move to a U.S. Air Force base to be with her mother.
“My mom said it’s up to me,” Natalia said last week during a break in classes. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet.”
It’s a big decision for a teenager, but Natalia is not your average teenager.
She is mature beyond her years because she has had to be. Her mother, Lisa Braam Azzoline, a 1985 graduate of Port Washington High School, is an 18-year veteran of the Air Force stationed in Baghdad. This is second time in two years she’s been stationed in Iraq.
Natalia’s mother and father, also a career soldier, are divorced. Although she occasionally sees her dad, who lives in Alabama, she lives with her mother, wherever that may take her.
Natalia was born at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany in 1997 and has lived on the Mountain Home Air Force base in Idaho, Kadena Air Force Base in Japan and Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
“Natalia is such a trooper considering this is her fourth school in about two years,” her mother, a master sergeant, wrote in an e-mail from Iraq.
“It goes without saying that having to move around this much as a pre-teen/teenager can be very stressful,” she wrote. “Making new friends, adapting to new environments and worrying about your mom in a deployed location is a lot on her young shoulders.”
The last time her mother was sent to Iraq, which was in 2008, Natalia lived with her father’s family in New Jersey.
This time, her mother brought her to her hometown of Port Washington, where Natalia lives with her aunt Wendy Doyle and her three children —a 9-year-old and twin 6-year-olds.
She has the support not only of her aunt but other relatives, including her grandparents, who live in the area.
Still, the fact is Natalia is not with her mother, and even for a veteran of military life that’s difficult, she said.
“My mom used to call me every day but I would go to school crying because it was so hard being away from her,” she said. “It’s better now. She calls a few times a week and we stay in touch with e-mails and video-chatting.”
A less mature child might be resentful of a mother who is not there all the time to help sort through life’s challenges. Not Natalia.
“I’m proud of my mom. She’s sacrificed a lot for the military,” she said. “I worry about her.”
Natalia said she knows her mother’s job is important.
“She helps people with money and does a lot of paperwork,” she said. “And I think she gets to shoot a gun once in awhile.”
Mrs. Azzoline said she works in the financial management department, helping fellow soldiers with pay-related issues and handling accounting and budget tasks.
Natalia’s job, of course, is being a student, and a good one at that. Except for one B+, she’s a straight-A student who doesn’t need to be reminded to do her homework.
“I learn pretty fast,” she said. “And when a teacher gives homework, I don’t wait, I just do it so I’m sure it’s finished.”
But one of the most important lessons Natalia has learned is something that can’t be taught in school.
“Natalia has the problem-solving skills and tenacity that I wish all kids had,” Thomas Jefferson Middle School Principal Arlan Galarowicz said.
In other words, in a day and age of so-called helicopter parents who swoop in to solve their children’s problems, Natalia has learned to cope with life’s challenges on her own.
“I ask my mom for advice when I talk to her, but most of the time I just take care of my own problems,” she said.
A mother couldn’t ask for any more, Mrs. Azzoline said.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of Natalia,” she wrote. “We are very close because it is just the two of us through thick and thin. Both of our hearts are empty when we are apart, but we both put on a strong face in order to support each other.”
Natalia has also found support at school, which was evident last week when students and staff members gathered for a Veterans Day ceremony.
Surrounded by her 800-plus school mates and a handful of relatives, Natalia raised an American flag flown in Iraq that was sent by her mother. With it came a letter to students and staff members.
“The military lifestyle can sometimes put a strain on the family, which consists of only two in our case,” Mrs. Azzoline, who also attended Thomas Jefferson Middle
School, wrote. “Even though my daughter has been through this before, there are still times when the separation is too much for either of us to bear. It helps me to know that my family and the students and faculty of TJMS are available to her.
“Thank you for your love and support. And, Natalia, thank you for being such a great girl.”
Galarowicz said the ceremony sent an important message to students.
“What I am trying impress upon our students is that we should recognize members of the military who work to protect us, and that along with those people come families,” he said. “We should appreciate those families and the sacrifices they have to make. They, too, deserve to be recognized.”
Natalia said she likes Port Washington and her school, but you get the sense she doesn’t want to become too attached to either.
She said she will spend Christmas in Alabama with her father and his family and is looking forward to January when she will be reunited with her mother.
Natalia knows, though, that she will have a decision to make, but said it’s nothing she can’t handle.
“Some people think it would be fun to move all over, but it’s hard just picking up and leaving every couple of years,” she said. “In a way, though, it is exciting, and I like meeting new people.
“Besides, that’s the military life, which is my life.”
An American flag sent from Iraq by her mother was raised by eighth-grader Natalia Azzoline during a Veterans Day ceremony at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Washington last week. Her mother Lisa, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, is stationed in Baghdad. Photo by Bill Schanen IV