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Shrapnel From Home

Times Staff Writer

Ain’t no use in callin’ home,

Jody’s got your telephone.

Ain’t no use in goin’ home,

Jody’s got your girl and gone.

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Sound off! (One, two.)

Sound off! (Three, four.)

*

KILLEEN, Texas -- Most of the men in 4th Squad, Charlie Battery, fought two wars while they were in Iraq. There was the war against the insurgents that had them patrolling for roadside bombs and raiding houses at all hours. Then there was the war back home, which had them struggling, over phone lines from 7,000 miles away, to keep their marriages and their bank accounts intact.

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They say they eventually got used to the bombs. The crazy possibility of dying any minute didn’t haunt them so much. But that other war, that was the one that tore them up in the downtime spent in Sgt. Cox’s trailer at Camp Victory. It would get quiet, and then one or another of them would ask: “So, how are things going at home?” And they would begin to brood.

They all knew about “Jody,” the opportunist of Army lore who moved in on a soldier’s girl while the soldier was off fighting a war. They had sung hundreds of cadences in basic training deriding the name. But it had always seemed like a joke, something that happened to other guys.

After all, Sgt. Brent Cox, 36, and his wife, Kristina, were expecting their first child after 12 years of marriage.

Pvt. Ray Hall, 21, was married to his high school sweetheart, an airman first class stationed in San Antonio.

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Spc. Jason Garcia, 23, believed that his on-again, off-again relationship with the mother of his then-2-year-old son was on again; he had given her his ATM card as a gesture of commitment.

But on the long-awaited day in February when the three soldiers returned here to Ft. Hood, Texas, turned in their rifles and stood on the parade field, only Hall had a sweetheart there to meet him. And he found himself wishing she hadn’t come at all.

After surviving the chaos of Iraq, thousands of soldiers have become casualties of a fight they were poorly trained for: keeping control of their family lives during the separation of war. Men and women who feel lucky their units suffered few fatalities say they can name dozens who returned to empty houses, squandered bank accounts, divorce papers and restraining orders.

The Army divorce rate has jumped more than 80% since the fighting began overseas in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The courts around Ft. Hood, the Army’s largest post, may have to add another judge to handle the caseload. Divorce lawyers hire extra staff whenever a division prepares to come home.

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To a soldier in battle, the threat of a family falling apart can be a dangerous distraction. “That’s probably the worst part about being over there,” said Hall, now back at Ft. Hood and facing a marriage so damaged it may not survive. “Your wife’s cheating on you, you know she’s been spending all your money the entire time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You think about that more than you do a bomb on the side of the road.”

For some in the 4th Squad, the tensions played out nightly in Camp Victory’s “Internet cafe” -- the Army trailer with rows of computers where soldiers flocked to contact their families. Some found more pain there than comfort. Cox’s wife was five months pregnant when she announced she was leaving him and going back home to Lawton, Okla.

Hall visited the Internet trailer less often after he checked the phone messages on his home answering machine one day and heard another man tell his wife he loved her.

Garcia stopped hearing from his girlfriend and started tracking his bank account. He said thousands of dollars of his saved pay was gone and she had found somebody else.

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Jody.

All three men said they were devastated. Hall and Garcia were demoted after they were caught with black-market booze, a violation of Army regulations.

Cox -- a personable and popular noncommissioned officer whose men compared him to actor Rick Moranis with a crew cut -- grew snappish and withdrawn.

“He was not himself at all when his wife told him she didn’t want to be with him no more,” recalled Spc. Lance Fernandez, 23. “He was short with us sometimes, and you could see that he was down and he was depressed.”

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There are six men in the squad, and five of them saw their marriages or relationships come under severe pressure. One relationship survived and three didn’t; the fate of the fifth is unresolved.

Concentrating on the mission became hard. Sitting in a Humvee, waiting for orders to roll out, the men would think about how life at home was falling apart and they could do little about it.

“When we go outside that gate and into Baghdad, you’ve got to have your head straight,” said Cox, who now lives alone in an apartment at Ft. Hood. “You’re trying to stay alive, but your mind goes to back home. Whatever problem you had before you left escalates, because you’re not there.... I just wish she would have talked to me.”

*

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Marriages and divorces in Bell County, home to Ft. Hood, are the highest per capita in Texas and as predictable as the tides. Before a division leaves for duty, Killeen’s two justices of the peace get busy. When the division returns, Michael White, a leading family law attorney, stocks up on divorce intake forms.

Cox, Hall, Garcia and the rest of the 17,000-member 1st Cavalry, the Army’s largest division, returned in March. In April, the district clerk’s office recorded 335 divorces. The monthly average is 200.

“The divorce rate is so high here, we are just in the beginning stages of approving a fifth district court in Bell County. And there are suggestions that we really need a sixth,” said White, whose waiting rooms are regularly filled with clients, mostly military.

The increase in the divorce rate is similarly steep Army-wide, with the number of ended marriages rising 86% from 2000 to 2004. That figure includes widows and some breakups counted twice, when soldiers divorce other soldiers. Even so, Army chaplains said the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had taken a severe toll on military marriages.

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“The extended deployments, a second one right on the back of the first -- we have placed a large number of families under stress,” said Col. Glen Bloomstrom, a chaplain and the Army’s director of ministry initiatives.

Whether by accident or design, the Army encourages its soldiers to marry. The best housing goes to families, leaving single soldiers to share the barracks. Wages are higher for active-duty soldiers with dependents, and higher still for those sent overseas, when the pay is tax-free. Hazardous-duty and family-separation supplements can amount to several hundred dollars a month.

Soldiers tend to enlist young and marry young: 1% of civilians under 20 is married, compared with about 14% of military members in the same age group, said Shelley M. MacDermid, co-director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University.

“These early young marriages are not a great recipe for marital longevity,” MacDermid said. “Research on divorce shows that. Add to that the anxiety associated with a dangerous job, and it doesn’t bode well.”

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The deadline for going to war is among the most powerful incentives to rush a wedding. This time around, those unions are being tested by the longest and most recurrent deployments in the history of the volunteer military.

Married or not, soldiers are encouraged to assign powers of attorney to people they trust to monitor their finances while they are overseas. Some hand over their ATM cards and sign blank checks to people they hardly know.

“They come back and their accounts are gone,” White said. “It’s not unique anymore.” Indeed, the Army recently instituted a program for single soldiers titled “How Not to Marry a Jerk.”

*

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Krystal Owen, 21, is the mother of two girls: Ashlynn, 4, and Avrie, 3. She grew up without a father in Academy, just outside Ft. Hood, and has left Texas once, to visit her brother in a Louisiana federal penitentiary. Determined to graduate from high school, she received her diploma while pregnant.

Married at 18 to a young private and divorced at 20, Owen earns $7 an hour as a secretary in the quaint old house that White converted into a law office. More than half of the $231.58 she clears each week goes to child care, another $85 toward rent. Money is a constant worry. Her mother tries to lend a hand, but she has financial problems of her own.

Owen has straight, dark hair and a face like actress Lindsay Lohan’s. She frequents the nightclubs around Ft. Hood, where soldiers take advantage of women -- and women take advantage of soldiers. She has experienced both sides of that.

When her husband took up with a female soldier in Iraq, he restricted his bank account, leaving Owen to support the girls on her own. He later admitted in court that the money he withheld was spent on “strip clubs and partying,” said White, who acted as her lawyer.

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To girls who grow up around Killeen, or who land here courtesy of the Army, a soldier is considered an excellent catch -- steady paycheck, health benefits, guaranteed housing.

Stability like that can be irresistible in a part of the country where earning $12 an hour is considered top dollar for a woman.

Still, when Owen met a young soldier two weeks before he left for Iraq in the spring, she declined his absurd marriage proposal -- he was, after all, already married, and she’d had enough of that.

But when he asked her to handle his finances while he was off manning the gun on top of a tank, she agreed. He left her his ATM card, his pass code, a book of signed checks and instructions to spend some money on herself.

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The thousands that accumulated in his account was irresistible, and she soon became the sort of woman she had seen so many others in Killeen become.

First, she went to Wal-Mart and bought her daughters a $400 motorized bicycle. That was followed by clothes for all three of them, a DVD player and a television set for the girls’ room. She took one of the blank checks and paid her April rent. There were a few nights of $600 rounds of drinks for her friends at one of the local strip clubs. When the soldier’s $10,000 reenlistment bonus came through, there was no stopping her.

“I got caught up on my bills and bought clothes for me and my girls,” she said, laughing weakly. “It was nothing he didn’t know about. He knew about most of it. He knew I was taking money out of his account. He just didn’t know how much.”

About $5,000 later, the soldier -- who still is in Iraq and could not be reached for comment -- caught on.

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He called Owen at work to say he was cutting her off. She left the law office for lunch five minutes early, intending to withdraw all she could. When the machine spit the card back, she was furious.

“I was thinking to myself -- and this is how these women think -- I should have kept some in my own account so I’d have money,” Owen said. “Because all of a sudden, that was it.”

Having that money, she said, was like an addiction. To buy new quilts for the girls’ beds, to drop steaks into the cart at the market, was glorious. Now back to living paycheck to paycheck, half of her brain tells her she did something terribly wrong, and the other half says to do it again if given the chance.

“I felt like if he was that stupid to have known me for two weeks and given me his ATM card, that’s what he gets,” she said, the tears in her eyes competing with the harsh words. “I tell myself I’m like a Good Samaritan, trying to get these soldiers to quit doing that. I know, it’s monstrous.”

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*

Killen is a place of extremes. There is a church on almost every block -- some blocks have two or three. The town has a multiplex theater and a Wal-Mart; chain restaurants are strung along Highway 190.

There is also a thriving culture of bars and strip clubs -- four are clustered on one corner alone on Ft. Hood Street, which runs along the post.

For Army wives, Killeen can be a dusty outpost that separates them from their families.

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“Some think they’re going to see the world, and they end up here,” said Justice of the Peace Garland K. Potvin, who has performed hundreds of Army marriages. With $30 and a military waiver of the legal waiting period, that can be accomplished in about half an hour. “I’ve lived in Killeen, Texas, all my life, and I love the town. But if you aren’t from here and don’t have family support, this is a hard place to get along with people.”

Kristina Cox lasted all of two months in Killeen after her husband left for duty. She packed up and went back to her mother in Oklahoma to have her baby. She declined to be interviewed, but her divorce attorney, Arthur South, described their 12-year marriage as another casualty of the war.

“She’s finding out that she doesn’t need him,” said South, who has handled his share of military divorces. “That’s what happens. The gals get married, they are kind of young, and all of a sudden the husband is gone for months. They find out they can write checks, mow the lawn.

“This is a real tragedy of war.”

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Whoever said absence makes the heart grow fonder never lived through a military tour. Sharin Pekarek, 22, can attest to that.

She met Garcia when they were both at Seguin High School near San Antonio; she got pregnant a year after graduation.

Garcia wouldn’t settle down, so she broke off their engagement two months before the baby was born. She and his parents encouraged him to join the Army and straighten out. She wrote to him in Iraq regularly for a few weeks, and he thought things were good. Then she met someone else.

Pekarek continued to spend Garcia’s money, but she said it went mostly to diapers and a child’s bedroom set. Sure, she bought herself a blouse -- didn’t she have that coming, considering he had checked out during her pregnancy and the baby’s first year?

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“I didn’t mean to spend that much,” she said from her home in Minnesota, where she said she had given up life as a stripper to become a nurse. “He didn’t realize how much it cost to pay bills, the diapers, the groceries. The day care kills me.”

Deployment strengthens the strong marriages and breaks the weak, Army brass have often said. But 4th Squad member Lance Fernandez and his wife, Emily, said it damaged the strong ones too.

Watching his baby daughter grow up via webcam, he bounced between doubt and faith in Iraq, listening to his friends’ despair and his wife’s reassurances.

She sent him boxes of Fruity Pebbles and, once, a 12-pack of his favorite root beer that cost $30 to ship. The Army’s separation and hazard pay barely covered the extra expenses of being apart. The root beer was shipped only because a stranger in line at the post office learned it was for a solider and offered to pay the tab.

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“This whole deployment really messed up a whole lot of marriages,” Spc. Fernandez said. “I can see six or eight months -- it has to be done. But anything longer than that takes too much out of the marriage. My little girl is still getting to know me.”

Fernandez’s marriage survived. Cox’s is over. Garcia and Pekarek have forged a friendship; he has his ATM card back, she’s engaged to someone else, and he’s OK with that.

As for Hall, the voice of “Jody” on the phone that day still hurts. He’s talking divorce; his wife, Airman First Class Melissa Hall, 22, is struggling to hold them together.

They married right out of Central High in Duluth, Minn. She said she tried to write or e-mail every day while he was in Iraq. But when the Air Force moved her to Randolph, near San Antonio, she had no friends, and he seemed very far away.

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“I did kind of meet someone, but it was just friends,” she said in a telephone interview. “I needed emotional support. I felt terrible that [Hall] was so hurt. It just tore him apart when he listened to the phone machine. He can’t drop it now.”

The day the men of the 4th Squad came home and the buses deposited them on the parade field at Ft. Hood, families filled the bleachers while the soldiers assembled in their desert camouflage dress. Once dismissed, each side broke free in a tearful, joyous search. Fathers met their babies for the first time. Husbands nearly squeezed the breath out of their wives. Lance Fernandez held onto Emily as he never had before.

Standing in the euphoric chaos, Brent Cox was pretty sure Kristina wouldn’t be there, but he searched anyway. Garcia knew no one would meet him and didn’t bother to look.

But Melissa Hall would not have missed it. She drove down from San Antonio and searched for her husband in the crowd. He didn’t hug her. They spent the weekend fighting.

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Off-duty and back in the Killeen countryside one warm night, Ray Hall stood outside a bull-riding ring watching one of his buddies get bucked to the ground for $5 a try. He took another beer and thought back to the day he heard Jody’s voice on the phone.

“I had to go out on patrol with Garcia and my sergeant. I was like, ‘You can’t think about this right now. That’s when people get blown up.’ ”

Back then, he found a way to put it aside.

Now, he can’t.

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“Yep, old Jody boy,” he said, shaking his head. “Home takin’ care of the wife.”

You had a good home but you left.

You’re right!

You had a good home but you left.

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You’re right!

Jody was there when you left.

You’re right!

One, two, three, four,

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One, two, three, four...

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rising toll on relationships

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Divorce rates among active-duty personnel in all branches of the U.S. military:

Divorces by fiscal year

2000: 19,223

2001: 18,774

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2002: 21,629

2003: 23,080

2004: 26,784

*

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2004 rates

*--* Total Male Female Enlisted Officer Army 4.1% 3.6% 7.3% 3.5% 6.0% Air Force 3.2% 2.6% 6.5% 3.8% 1.5% Marines 3.2% 2.9% 8.0% 3.5% 1.7% Navy 3.7% 3.2% 7.4% 3.9% 2.5% Total 3.6% 3.1% 7.0% 3.7% 3.3%

*--*

Note: Data do not include activated Reserve or National Guard members.

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Source: Department of Defense. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken


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