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Lynnzie Leavitt celebrated her 12th birthday in 2005 without her father.

"He actually landed in Iraq on my birthday," the 19-year-old recalls. "I remember he sent me an e-mail because he couldn't be there."

That was Utah National Guard Staff Sgt. Jeff Leavitt's first deployment overseas. When he returned 15 months later, things were different, his daughter said.

"I just wasn't as much of a little kid," she said. "I was more independent."

Jeff Leavitt's second deployment — a 12-month stint in Afghanistan — came in 2008, when Lynnzie was 16. When he returned she had become her mother's right hand around the house, was driving, serving on a National Guard youth board and was making plans for college and beyond. She had earned her mother's trust, she said, but she and Dad clashed a bit over small things, such as her lack of a curfew.

"He had a hard time," said Lynnzie Leavitt, who believes her father came home more "serious" but also more appreciative of his family.

A guardsman since 1997, Jeff Leavitt has missed birthdays and other milestones, including Father's Day celebrations and about 12 wedding anniversaries, by wife Kassie Leavitt's count. But the absences have also drawn the family closer, Lynnzie Leavitt said.

Jeff Leavitt agrees.

"It woke me up a little bit to what I had at home and what I needed to take care of," Jeff Leavitt said of deployment. "Some people, deployment changes their lives for the worse and for some people it changes for the better."

That's not to say everything was easy. Kids of deployed parents take on more responsibilities, and news reports can bring shots of fear and uncertainty. All three of the Leavitt kids have had to grow up faster and worried about things most kids don't, Lynnzie Leavitt said.

"When they are deployed, you get into a rhythm of that. You almost have to forget what's happening," she said. "I think I was holding myself back from being happy a lot."

Still, the University of Utah student said she wouldn't give up the experience.

"It's pushed me to do a lot of things I had never thought I would, " she said. "It's made me more outgoing, because ... through my dad's service I've have had a lot of opportunities."

Lynnzie Leavitt has served as president of a Utah National Guard youth group and has mentored other guard kids. Now she's bent on a career as a psychologist, specifically working with families struggling to cope with post traumatic stress disorder.

She also wants to help civilians better understand the challenges military families face.

"I think one of the hardest parts of being a military kid is that you're not always surrounded by other people that are necessarily aware or sensitive to what's going on. It's hard to listen to that," she said. "I understand. It's been a long war ... But what my dad did is important. It may not seem relevant to daily life in Utah, but it's important in the context of the rest of the world."

Twitter: @jenniferdobner

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