"If we can help them get through this, I am happy," Bridget Platt tells PEOPLE

By Susan Keating
Updated November 12, 2015 12:35 PM
Michelle Salsman

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Bridget Platt stood holding her newborn baby when her Marine Corps husband, Craig Platt, tearfully broke the news that nearly made the first time mother collapse: In 48 hours, Craig would leave on a mission that would split the family for four months.

“I gripped the kitchen counter top, willing my own tears not to fall,” Bridget tells PEOPLE.

Now, with many long family separations and reunions behind her, 31-year old Platt is an entrepreneur who creates personalized books to help other military families cope with unwelcome separation.

The books – Daddy’s Deployed and Mommy’s Deployed – tell the story of a family whose parent must go away on military assignment while loved ones remain at home. Each book is customized according to branch of service, along with race, hair and eye color, family members and pets.

Each book follows the individualized family through separation, deployment, reunion and markers in between.

“Our goal is for children to feel connected to the deploying parent, and to help them cope with separation,” Bridget says. “We do that through the personalized story and illustrations. We want children to see their own family in the book.”

The personalization makes a difference, families affirm.

“Our book was about our own family, and that made a huge impact,” says Jill Jaragoske, whose 3-year-old son, Jacob, struggled when his Army dad, Bryan, deployed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“Jacob is very close to my husband, and it was so hard on him not having his dad,” Jill tells PEOPLE. “The book calmed him down. We read it at least 10 times a week. It was a lifesaver.”

Before she became a mother herself, Bridget saw the effects of family separation on those she calls “our tiniest warriors” – the children of deployed service members. While living on the West Coast when Craig was stationed at Whidbey Island, Washington, Bridgett worked as a teacher for very young children of military families (the family now lives in North Carolina).

“One little girl was so sweet and well behaved,” recalls Bridget. “When her dad deployed, everything changed. She lost her potty training. During naps, she cried for her dad in her sleep.”

“I thought, someone has to help this child,” Bridget says. “She stuck with me. I still get emotional about her.”

Later, after Craig had returned home and again left, Bridget experienced the catalyst that sparked Daddy’s Deployed.

The young mom had taught rudimentary sign language to pre-verbal baby Charlotte.

“Charlotte knew all the signs for family members,” Bridget says. “After Craig deployed, when I did the sign for ‘Dad,’ her eyes glazed over. It was so heartbreaking.”

One day at the commissary, Bridget and Charlotte encountered a man who closely resembled Craig.

“Charlotte started kicking her legs and pointing to him,” Bridget says. “She made the sign for ‘Dad.’

Bridget realized that Charlotte recognized Craig from a scrapbook-style deployment book the she had created for her daughter.

“I had an ‘aha’ moment,” Bridget says. “I thought, ‘If this helps my child, maybe I can help others, like that little girl from Whidbey Island.’ ”

After consulting with her business-minded older brother, Beau D’Arcy, Bridget launched the project to create personalized deployment books.

Three years later, Bridget has delivered more than 1,000 personalized books into the hands of military families. Nearly one-half have been donated through various programs.

Connecting children and deployed parents is an important part of the military’s deployment cycle, experts say.

“Deployments can be a stressful time for members of the military and their loved ones back home,” says Koby J. Langley, senior vice president of Service to the Armed Forces of the American Red Cross. Noting that modern military families are part of the most deployed force in American history, Langley says that the prolonged, repeated deployments place a burden on families.

“When children of military families stay in regular contact with their deployed parent, it provides a sense of comfort for the child and brings peace of mind for the deployed military member who can then better focus on the mission,” Langley tells PEOPLE.

Maintaining the connection “provides emotional stability for both members” of the parent-child pairing, says Major Demietrice Pittman, an Army psychologist who works with military families as part of the Pentagon’s Real Warriors Campaign.

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Among other things, Maj. Pittman says, maintaining the connection during deployment decreases anxiety for the child.

For military children during deployment, anxiety is normal.

“While my husband was gone, my daughter’s emotions were getting larger and larger,” says Beth Kappes, whose family has a personalized Daddy’s Deployed. “The book does not gloss over those.”

Not even the emotions connected with homecoming.

One section in the book shows a child experiencing a jumble of feelings on homecoming day.

“My daughter felt those, too,” says Beth, whose voice chokes with emotion while recounting reading that page. “The book shows that it’s normal and it’s okay to feel nervous when Daddy is coming home.

“I’m so glad we found out about this book,” Beth adds. “I am so grateful to Bridget for creating this.”

“It’s all part of being a military family,” Bridget says. “If we can help them get through this, I am happy.”