Parents

52 weeks of cookies: Son's deployment sends military mom on epic baking mission

When her 20-year-old son was deployed to Iraq with just a few days’ notice, Maggie McCreath desperately searched for her own mission to cope with the worry. She found it with the help of flour, sugar, vanilla and lots of love.

The military mom would bake cookies every week, challenging herself to come up with a new recipe each time, and send them to Buddy in a sweet care package that would help both of them endure his dangerous tour of duty.

Courtesy Maggie McCreath
Maggie McCreath and her son Buddy reunite in March 2008 after his second deployment to Iraq.

“A part of is helping your child get through it and get through it positively,” McCreath, 58, told TODAY Parents.

“But there is another side of that, which is making sure that I got through it sane… I was trying to figure out: I’m home, he’s overseas — how am I going to handle this? The baking was an automatic go-to.”

McCreath, who lives in Reston, Virginia, recounts the experience in her new memoir and cookbook, “52 Weeks of Cookies: How One Mom Refused to Be Beaten by Her Son's Deployment.”

Related: 7 ways to help military families during deployment

Buddy was 17 when he joined the military in 2003, enlisting in the U.S. Army during his senior year of high school.

Courtesy Maggie McCreath
Buddy and his sister Haley smile on the day he returned home from his first deployment in February 2006.

By 2006, he was a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division with one deployment to Iraq already behind him. Just after Buddy, his sister Haley and McCreath celebrated Christmas that year, the news broke: He had to go back to be part of the “surge” of U.S. troops tasked with stopping the bloody violence in Iraq.

“The phone rang. It was my son and he said, ‘Mom I ship out in five days,’” McCreath recalled. “I thought to myself: I can’t do this again.”

Her only son would be gone at least a year and she knew the mission would be much more dangerous than the last one.

Courtesy Maggie McCreath
Buddy in Iraq during "the surge" in the spring of 2007.

That’s when McCreath, a single mom, began looking for a way to cope. Ever since she was a girl, she turned to baking for stress relief. It’s what she did when she was upset, when something concerned her, when she had a hard day or when she just wanted to relax.

She was already a pro at creating care packages, sending them to Buddy during his first deployment and other troops she found through sites like AnySoldier.com.

“They’re just so appreciative. Homemade cookies have always been in my mind a part of a care package,” McCreath said.

The cookies would have to stay tasty for at least a week — the time it took for the package to reach Buddy in Iraq — and they’d have to be different every week, she decided. For Buddy and his friends, they would be something to look forward to; a treat to give them a break from the war zone, if only for five minutes.

Related: Parenting over Skype: 7 lessons from military families

Courtesy Maggie McCreath
Maggie McCreath's Oreo Cookie Cookies.

McCreath created recipes on weekdays — inspired by anything from autumn spices to the taste of cake batter ice cream — and baked every weekend, stuffing as many cookies as she could into airtight containers.

Recipe: Try Maggie McCreath's Oreo Cookie Cookies

Recipe: Try Maggie McCreath's Peanut Butter Blasts

She decorated the care packages with bright stickers and drawings, and added silly toys like “paratrooping rabbits” to make Buddy smile.

“It gave me something that had to be done so that I couldn’t just sit around and wallow in self-pity. Or worse yet, watch the news 24 hours a day because the news was just horrible,” McCreath recalled.

“It helped me maintain who I was.”

Courtesy Maggie McCreath
Buddy and his mom on the day he was commissioned Warrant Officer in 2014.

She sent 52 care packages filled with unique cookies every week from Valentine’s Day 2007 to Valentine’s Day 2008. She prayed Buddy would come home with his body and soul uninjured from the war.

He came back safe, though more missions were ahead. Buddy was deployed to Afghanistan twice after returning from Iraq. Today, he is 29 and learning to fly helicopters in Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Courtesy Maggie McCreath
Buddy gives his big sister away at her wedding in August 2015.

McCreath knows the cookies made a difference, helping her son stay sane and helping her do the same.

“You’ve got to find that mission you are going to be on while your son or daughter is deployed that’s going to give you purpose,” she said.

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