Maj. Lisa Jaster was sitting on the back steps of a home in the Columbus Historic District Thursday night, her red-headed 3-year-old daughter, Tori, clinging to her.
"It's OK," the mother said in a comforting voice. "Just one more night of Ranger sleepover."
That is what 180 days of Ranger School had boiled down to -- one more night of Ranger sleepover.
Her day pass about to expire, Lisa left the celebration of family, friends and fellow West Point graduates with her husband, Allan Jaster, and headed back to Fort Benning's Camp Rogers for the final step in a six-month emotional and physical roller coaster. As she and her husband left, Tori, short for Victoria, and her 7-year-old brother, Zac, stayed back with their grandparents.
The 37-year mother of two -- she will be 38 in a couple of weeks -- says she could not have accomplished the seemingly impossible task of earning a U.S. Army Ranger tab without the support and love of her family.
And that starts with her husband, a lieutenant colonel who commands a Marine reserve unit in Houston.
"He understands," she said Friday during a news conference two hours before she became the third woman to graduate from the Army's most difficult combat leadership course. "He has been through hard schools and been through hard training -- been away from the family -- which is a good thing for me. I have been alone with the kids a lot, too. There's a little less guilt than there would be otherwise."
Husband and wife are different in one very obvious way: Allan, a former college basketball player, stands 6-foot-10, while Lisa is 5-foot-4.
Both have the military in common, meeting 10 years ago at 5 a.m. in a gym at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Today, they each serve in reserve units. He works as a financial advisor and she is employed by Shell Oil as an engineer.
Allan said the fact that he is military helped make it possible for his wife to leave on April 18 for what she hoped would be a two-month school. Instead, it turned into a six-month grind, with Lisa repeating four phases.
"She has been with me through two Iraq deployments, a command tour and numerous schools," Allan said. "... She sent me out the door -- never a fuss. I have seen what many other spouses go through with those schools -- 'I need to hurry up and get home.' I have never had that."
He says that prepared him to return the favor and give her the support she needed as the two months became six months.
"He understands and he recognizes how to support someone who is going through a tough school," Lisa said. "When I called home, I didn't hear about the spilled milk. I heard, 'Your kids are thriving, they're doing wonderful. They miss you and they love you.'"
It was important to reassure her that the family was functioning despite her absence, especially when the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, Allan said.
"I always said, 'Stay as long as you want to stay,'" he said. "I wrote that in every letter -- all 87 of them. 'Get what you came for.' There was always something in there that reassured her that, 'Hey, your kids are happy, they miss you, but we are all thriving. Stay as long as you want to stay."
Did he think it would turn into six months?
"Not in my wildest dream," Allan said.
Team Jaster wasn't just Lisa, Allan and the children.
"I have a wonderful mother who has driven from Wisconsin to Houston quite a few times to make sure everybody was happy and healthy," Lisa said.
Four times, to be exact, said Lisa's mother, Diane Slabe, who lives in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., an 18-hour drive from Houston. "I know it took longer than they expected," Slabe said. "But they had total support from both sides of the family. And I know Allan was extremely supportive. Allan did a magnificent job of holding it all together."
Allan's parents, George and Sally Jaster, live 90 miles north of Houston and have also played a key role in helping keep things going on the homefront while Lisa was at Fort Benning then the north Georgia mountains and the Florida swamps.
"When two people are married and both are successful, they have to support each other," Sally Jaster said. "That's all part of it. I couldn't imagine a more wonderful person to be married to my son. She's a great wife and an excellent mother."
And there is also a support system of friends that kicked in, Lisa said.
"I know there is a neighborhood in Houston who has stopped by to make sure that my kids weren't running around with jelly in their hair," she said.
The family has been living with Ranger School since the first of the year. In January, Lisa spent two weeks at Fort Benning in a pre-Ranger training program. She then returned to Houston and waited for the April report date.
"Once I returned home, I went to the gym, I went to jujitsu," she said. "I took my kids to school, like everyone else. I went to work -- sometimes long days. I came home, cooked dinner and went to bed."
And because her reserve unit was not able to offer the needed help to prepare for Ranger School, she turned to her husband and his unit.
"Some of his NCOs and warrant officers spent their off days and pulled out the 240 (M240 machine gun, used extensively by the infantry), which I had not touched before, and pulled out a 249 (M249 squad automatic weapon) out of the arms room," she said. "They took out the weapons we would get tested on at Ranger School and showed me how to take them apart and put them back together. ... That was the train-up I got going into Ranger School. I worked every day at Shell and would come home and study my Ranger Handbook."
She did one other thing: She cooked and froze homemade meals, which Allan says got the family through the first month without Mommy.
Now that Lisa is out of the school, Allan has done what he can to help her make a smooth transition back to her roles as wife, mother and employee. For starters, the home will be spotless when she walks in on Sunday.
"I don't want her to come home and feel like the kids didn't thrive while she was gone," Allan said. "There is some Mommy guilt in there that I can help fix for her. Having the house squared away is part of that."
Ask Allan if he is proud of what his wife has accomplished and he gets a serious look on his face.
"I am proud of her," he said. "But it doesn't surprise me. If you spent any time around Lisa, none of this would surprise you. I think the world now knows what I have known since I first met her -- she is one of the most capable humans I have ever met."
The respect is mutual.
Lisa said that her accomplishments reflect a partnership with her husband.
"Someone asked me how I could be able to do some of the things I have done," she said. "I said, 'Easy, marry the right man' -- or the right woman, as the case may be."
They left Columbus on Saturday, driving back to Houston and the real world.
"I look forward for right now," Lisa said, "to seeing Fort Benning in my rearview."