A sign hangs prominently in Lori Ballard's kitchen: "Army Wife – Courage – Strength – Sacrifice."
For 18 years — since she was 19 and, she says, "straight out of my Mom's house" — Ballard has been an Army wife. Her husband, 1st Sgt. Craig Ballard, was already in the Army when they married.
"He prepared me well," she said. "I'm pretty self-sufficient by now."
Ballard has lived much of her married life like a single parent, caring for her daughter, Emily, now 12, and son, Austin, now 4, while her husband was away on one deployment after another — four so far.
1st Sgt. Ballard, 46, has been absent for half of their daughter's life. He will have missed nearly a year of their young son's life. Daughter Emily attended five schools in six years.
His wife now home-schools their children, removing one of her last regular connections to the civilian world outside Ft. Bragg. They rarely venture outside the base, because they rarely need to.
Just about all their needs are met within Ft. Bragg's tightly secured post, from shopping and groceries to libraries, church and medical care. Although about two-thirds of the soldiers posted here live off base, the Ballards chose to live on post for convenience, support and security.
With her husband away, Lori Ballard, 37, has taken leadership of his unit's Family Readiness Group. She helps provide support for about 150 wives whose husbands are away. Like a doctor or social worker, she's always on call. She keeps a 3-inch-thick binder stuffed with phone numbers and lists of services available on the base.
"It's all about helping military families be self-sustained," she said. "We take care of each other."
No one outside the military could possibly understand Army life, Ballard said — the constant moves, the stressful late-night phone calls, the dread of the knock at the door with news of a combat casualty. Her husband has missed countless Valentine's Days and anniversaries. This year, it's likely he'll miss every family birthday. Initially, the wars — first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq — were on everyone's mind. Newspapers had front-page headlines every day; wives like Ballard whose husbands were going to fight got phone calls offering help and frequent expressions of support.
Now, after over 13 years of war, the conflicts "have sort of lost their shininess — although I hate to use that word for it," Ballard said.
"Now people just go on about their lives and forget there are still people over there fighting for them."
She doesn't have any close civilian friends. "It's not like we try not to meet civilians. It's just that we're just such a tight-knit, self-reliant community here on post," she said.
One morning last summer, as Ballard taught a home-school lesson, her husband called from Qatar, where he's now serving. The family is able to talk by Skype several times a week.
"I'm counting the days," he said as Ballard and the kids squeezed around the Webcam on the kitchen table, trying to project their smiles half a world away.
He asked Austin what gift he wanted when his dad returned home. He told Emily she looked very nice.
"I have on my new dress," Emily said, standing to preen.
"You're growing up way too fast," her father told her.
"I bet I'm taller than some of the people in your unit," she replied. "I'm already looking Mom in the eye."
Emily said she wished her father could see her at her volleyball games and dance lessons. He's never seen her at either activity, she said.
There were goodbye kisses blown, and then the screen went dark.
Since then, 1st Sgt. Ballard has come safely home. The family has moved to Lexington, Va., where the longtime soldier is an instructor in a Reserve Officers' Training Corps program.
Lori Ballard says she has no regrets about choosing a military life. She's proud of her husband's — and her family's — service to the nation.
"I love our life — it's the life we chose," she said. "We would have it no other way. Our children are resilient and well-rounded and adaptive to change."
Ballard figures her family will always be part of the military, even after her husband retires. They plan to live near a military base.
"Retirement scares me," she said. "To be honest, just to live in the civilian world would make me a little nervous."
This is one of several reports on the growing separation between America's all-volunteer military and the public it serves: latimes.com/volunteer-army