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Where the War Drags On

Times Staff Writer

For the more than 6,000 military families living here, life lately is one long, wrenching haul. On a quiet cul-de-sac called Clements Circle, all the men are gone. An 8-year-old girl’s grades are slipping. Her 13-year-old brother has taken over mowing the lawn. Their mother, who can’t sleep, has lost 20 pounds on the treadmill.

President Bush has pronounced the war in Iraq all but over, and scenes of tanks lurching blindly through desert sandstorms have yielded to pictures of sailors bounding from the decks of aircraft carriers.

But 250,000 soldiers are still deployed in the region that stretches from middle Asia to the Horn of Africa. And for them, the struggle grinds on, testing the endurance of not just the troops but their families, one of war’s most overlooked casualties.

Once, the Pentagon’s goal was that no deployment last more than six months. But with the downsizing of the armed forces in the last decade and the war on terrorism draining military resources, all promises are off. Active-duty soldiers and reserves are tapped for more missions, more often. And the call to duty is falling hard on military families.

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All around Ft. Hood, the Army’s largest installation, the daily routine is a study in making do and doing without. A wife struggles to move into a new house. A confused German shepherd runs away. There’s no money for a baby’s bassinet.

Even routine chores and mishaps feel outsized: Susan Burdick’s car needs an oil change. The blender blew up. The vacuum cleaner is on its last legs. She is stretching to make the truck payments that her husband’s part-time job at a furniture store used to cover.

Sgt. Kenneth Burdick, however, will know none of that. Like most military marriages, theirs comes with an unspoken deal: He doesn’t reveal the ugliness of the battlefield and she doesn’t unload the frustrations at home.

He left Feb. 3 to join a unit searching for weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. In their 12 years of marriage -- seven of them spent first in the National Guard and now on active duty -- he has gone away for occasional training exercises but never for so long or to a place so dangerous.

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“I would never tell him that the kids are sad or not behaving and I just can’t stand it anymore, that I need him home because I can’t handle it,” said Burdick, 31. “I just tell him things are going well and I’m keeping up the home front. He needs to be able to keep his mind on his job and his safety. He couldn’t do that if he knew that back at home it was absolute chaos.”

Nearly 20,000 soldiers have deployed out of Ft. Hood, home to the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Calvary. Most left March 27, part of a second wave of troops who caught the tail end of combat and the front end of a mission to control unrest and hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

Signs of their absence are everywhere. Hell on Wheels Avenue -- a seven-mile stretch of motor pools usually teeming with tanks, Humvees and trucks -- is a chain of deserted parking lots. All three of the women who work the front desk at the new Best Western in nearby Copperas Cove are on their own. Business at Casa Ole would be dead if not for the 99-cent margaritas on Tuesdays and Thursdays; no one is much in the mood for dinners out.

The number of nights a soldier spends away from his family has shot up 300% since 1989 in all of the services, “making family separation a fact of life in the foreseeable future,” according to Bruce Bell, a senior research psychologist at the Army Research Institute in Virginia.

“Deployment used to max out at 180 days, but that’s been shot out of the water,” said Navy Lt. Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesman. “The services are doing their best to keep them home for a while before sending them out again, but there’s no guarantee of that either.”

Duty comes with a price. After the Persian Gulf War, Ft. Hood showed a 375% rise in divorce filings over the rate in a comparable period before the conflict, a trend mirrored near other military installations, according to a postwar study by mental health professionals.

Military psychologists and chaplains question whether the war caused such a dramatic rise in breakups, suggesting a backlog of divorces may have built up while soldiers were overseas. America’s armed forces are a high-risk group for marital failure even in peacetime; many soldiers are married with children before they turn 21.

But no one disputes that deployment challenges the military family. Some are strengthened by it, others broken.

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In one of the worst episodes of domestic violence in military memory, four wives were killed last summer by their soldier husbands at Ft. Bragg, N.C., home to the 82nd Airborne Division, which played a prominent role in the war in Afghanistan. All four accused soldiers ultimately committed suicide. (In a fifth case, a woman was charged with killing her Special Forces husband.)

That string of tragedies rocked military leaders already acutely aware of the consequences of separation. The Army has come a long way since America tried to fight World War II with unmarried soldiers, discouraging dependents with low pay and lack of support. Some wives lived in abandoned gas stations, chicken coops, tents and cellars.

But as families suffered, so did recruitment and retention. Today, more than half of Army personnel are married, with a catalog of services at hand to help keep them that way.

Ft. Hood is the Army’s training center for family life chaplains, where crisis counseling is taught to prevent tragedies such as suicide and divorce. Two years ago, Ft. Hood recorded the highest number of suicides in the Army. Last year, the suicide rate dropped more than 80%, and officials hope the counseling will also lead to more stable marriages.

“Training money that would otherwise go to bullets and tank rounds is going to off-site marriage retreats,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Lance Sneath. “It’s the Army putting its money where its mouth is.”

It’s 7:30 a.m. on payday and already the wives are streaming into the Family Assistance Center, a chandeliered ballroom converted to a 24-hour one-stop help center the day the troops left.

Even in an Army that encourages gender diversity, 85% of enlisted soldiers are male, meaning most of the spouses waiting at home are wives. Here they can get spiritual counseling, warm cookies, drop-in day care and financial advice, which is in high demand at the moment, considering the Army paychecks that were just issued.

The four chairs Peggy Stamper placed in a waiting space at the finance station are already not enough; before the morning is over, she will pull out 20 more.

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“Comparing the life of a soldier family to the guy who works at IBM is impossible,” said Stamper, chief of the Soldier and Family Readiness Branch. “Even a cop working a dangerous 12-hour shift comes home at the end of it. But military families make sacrifices always.”

Trisha Thomas, 27, checked her 3-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, into day care and took a seat, wondering why the extra pay for separation and hazardous duty wasn’t in her husband’s check. Sgt. Daniel Thomas left for Iraq on April 5. Their second child is due in June and they need a bassinet, but any extra money they had was spent on supplies the Army doesn’t provide -- extra brown T-shirts and underwear, because who knows when he’ll be able to do his laundry? Cigarettes, replacement stakes for his tent, a CD player.

Finances are one of the greatest frustrations of separation. Phone bills go up. Checks can be unreliable, late or for less than expected. Soldiers worry that their spouses will drain the bank account while they are gone.

Even in the civilian communities surrounding sprawling Ft. Hood -- a post that rivals Dallas in sheer land mass -- the military wives are easy to spot. Most wear buttons bearing a husband’s face. On balmy evenings, they are the ones sitting with their children in booths at McDonald’s, the men conspicuously absent. The outdoor grill at home is cold no matter how nice the weather; what’s the point if he’s not there to start it?

“Sometimes I think about not being in the military,” Trisha Thomas confided from the food court at one of Ft. Hood’s PXes. “I’m really proud of my husband. But some guys are in the field a lot more than others.”

Despite classes in marriage enrichment, premarital counseling, deployment preparation and a growing number of chaplains trained in stress management, there is a stigma attached to seeking help.

“Some wives fear that if they speak up, there will be military repercussions. Your husband’s career could suffer,” said Beth Kageorge, 39. Her husband, Sgt. Patrick Barlow, left for Iraq on April 30. His German shepherd promptly ran away and she spent hours combing the neighborhood until the dog came home.

Her days off from her job as a desk clerk at the Best Western are spent moving small boxes into the house she and her husband bought before he left. All the men who would have helped her move the big stuff are in Iraq. One moment she is missing her husband terribly, the next she’s cursing him for leaving her to settle a new house alone.

“I cuss him out on a daily basis. I don’t want to live in a new home. What if he doesn’t come back?” Kageorge said. For more than a week after he left, she couldn’t drive down Hell on Wheels Avenue without crying.

The test of the military marriage starts before the unit moves out and does not necessarily end with the reunion. Army scheduling can be unnerving. Thousands at Ft. Hood received their orders in January, then spent three months on hold. There were no shopping trips to Dallas; orders were to stay near the post. There were more “last dates” than anyone cares to count.

Before Sgt. Daniel Thomas shipped out, every Sunday at Faith Temple Church, the congregation said a prayer for him. The next Sunday he would show up, and the congregation would pray some more.

Then, one Sunday, he was gone.

“I hadn’t cried because I was preparing in my head for him to go. Then at the last minute, when they hollered at him that it was time for formation, he was kissing me and I just started to shake. I thought this could be the last time I see him alive,” his wife said, crying some more, as her 3-year-old reached up from her drawing to wipe away her mother’s tears. “He said, ‘Don’t.’ He got real scared. I said just come back to me alive. That’s all I want.”

Even the much-awaited reunion can be an emotional thicket. Much is made of how combat alters a soldier, but less is said about how it transforms a spouse. Some discover independence, taking over the checking account and refusing to give it back. Some move out after finding they can, indeed, survive alone.

“You can almost predict the marital spats -- one before they leave, a way of separating, and one when they come back, a way of saying this is my lane now, not yours,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Moran, who heads the chaplain training center at Ft. Hood.

As part of a new Army-wide program announced this month, returning soldiers will take part in mandatory stress management classes and marriage workshops; commanders will look for signs of depression, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other at-risk behaviors.

But the military is also looking to the civilian world for support, noting that the wartime outpouring of donations and goodwill tends to dry up when the soldiers come home, although military families may still be troubled.

“When they’re back, we don’t assume everything is fine,” Moran said. “We can’t expect the government to be able to meet their every need. The people who can help them may be the people right next door.”

Families such as Susan Burdick’s expect to come out the other side stronger. Her husband is part of an administrative unit that was not expected to go. But one Friday night he got the call, and the next Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. he was gone. His 8-year-old daughter, Brittany, a model student, is having trouble concentrating in school. His 13-year-old son, Paul, is mowing the lawn and watching out for his mother, who has dropped from a size 10 to a size 7.

Mother’s Day morning, Burdick heard her son in the kitchen struggling to make pancakes with an uncooperative skillet. She found him with tears in his eyes, holding a battered mess. She showed him the nonstick pan and half an hour later he presented her with breakfast, the first time he had ever cooked.

“Ken usually takes them to get something for me, but what Paul did that morning is a memory I will have with me forever,” she said. “Those are positive things about the deployment. You see what you take for granted and what you want to improve. You see what that person means to you, how good it will be when we’re all together again.”

Until the next call comes.

“Oh no, he can’t leave us again. This is too hard,” she said over ice cream cones with her children late one night at Wal-Mart. “If he comes back and then leaves us again?” she repeated, incredulous. “Sometimes I just wish he had a normal job.”


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