GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — An infatuation with jets led Danelle Collins to join the Air National Guard.
She never dreamed, however, that her childhood desire to join the military would come into play during a divorce and custody battle years later.
Collins, 33, enlisted in the Air National Guard in her home state of North Dakota in April 2000. She moved to Nebraska a few months later. Since she hadn't attended basic training yet, she was discharged from the Guard in North Dakota and allowed to re-enlist in Nebraska in October 2000.
While in Nebraska, she met Colby Collins. The couple married in 2003 and had two children, Callie, now 7, and Tyler, 4.
Danelle Collins filed for divorce in 2010. According to court documents filed by her attorney, Bob Creager, the couple agreed on issues relating to property settlement, child support and a parenting plan. However, they couldn't agree on custody of the children, who then were living with their mother. A divorce trial took place in Hall County District Court in March 2012.
While recognizing Danelle Collins' freedom to pursue her military career, Hall County Judge James Livingston ruled that the uncertainty of deployment would make it difficult for her to provide a stable home for the children. He coupled that with her intention of starting a new business. As a result, Livingston determined that Colby Collins could provide a more stable environment for the children.
Danelle was ordered to pay child support. She has visitation rights and sees the children every other weekend and on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school.
The judge found both parents to be fit and proper parents. However, he ruled that the family unit wasn't typical “solely from the fact of the plaintiff's military career.”
Danelle was up for re-enlistment in October. She could have chosen another six-year term but decided after speaking to her superiors to re-enlist for one year while her custody dispute continues.
“My passion about my children is first and foremost,” she said. “My passion about the military has been there since I was a child. At 20 years of service, I'll get full retirement.”
At the time of the trial, Danelle was living in Grand Island and working in Kearney. She has since moved to Kearney. She also indicated she planned to start her own business. Colby was living in the family home and working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the time of the trial, according to the divorce decree.
Danelle is now a technical sergeant in the Nebraska National Guard with the 155th Air Refueling Station in Lincoln. She has drills one weekend a month and two weeks of training per year.
According to the appellate brief filed by Creager, Danelle has been deployed three times since her children's births. In June 2006, she was in Turkey for two weeks. In August 2007, she was in Guam for two weeks. During both of those times, her daughter stayed with her parents. The third deployment was for 42 days in October 2009. During that time, the children stayed with their father, and a family friend helped care for them as well.
Creager filed the appeal in November, and Colby Collins' attorney filed a motion for summary affirmance, which maintains that the questions Creager presented for review are insubstantial and don't require further argument. Creager recently filed a response to the motion and is waiting to hear whether the Nebraska Court of Appeals will dismiss or accept his appeal request.
The basis for Creager's appeal is a state law that took effect in August 2011. The law states that a military parent's military “membership, mobilization, deployment, absence, relocation or failure to comply with custody, parenting time, visitation or other access orders because of military duty shall not, by itself, be sufficient to justify an order or modification of an order involving custody, parenting time, visitation or other access.”
According to the brief, Creager argued that the trial court's conclusion that Danelle's military service creates future instability wasn't supported by evidence and was in violation of the state statute.
Until the Collins case, no cases had been brought to the Nebraska Court of Appeals under the new law. .
According to Creager's brief, assuming Danelle Collins' military service created potential instability for the children, such service can't be the sole basis for a custody order. He's asking for clarification or direction from the appeals court as to how the provision in the new law should be applied.
Danelle Collins said she has a mandated family care plan through the military addressing who would care for her children if she were deployed. She also has the support of her superior officers, who have talked to her about the effect her custody case could have on future filings by other military families.
“Colby is still their father,” she said. “He should still see them. I don't have hatred for him. Our marriage just didn't work.”
“I'm the one who rocked them to sleep and stayed with them when they were sick,” she said. “How can I explain to them why I can't do that now because I wear a uniform and do what's right for our country, when I don't understand it?”