Sue Balboa turned 49 years old last month without the company of her husband, a California National Guardsman serving in Iraq. The Moreno Valley grandmother consoles herself by thinking that on her next birthday, the milestone 50th, he will be back home and at her side.
While the soldiers of Bravo Company, 1-160th Infantry, face the daily dangers of overseas combat duty in Baghdad, their families back home must find ways of coping without them.
For Sue Balboa, wife of 1st Sgt. Paul Balboa, this means holding a yard sale in the searing October heat outside the Riverside National Guard Armory to raise money for Christmas parties and other get-togethers for the Bravo Company's family support group. The group, which Sue Balboa heads along with the Family Support NCO, Sgt. Gary Houck, of Orange, also provides emergency funds for families undergoing hardships.
"Part of my job as a family support coordinator is to call our families and see how they're doing," said Balboa, sitting amid stacks of used clothing and patriotic knick-knacks. "We try to keep the soldiers over there focused, knowing that they don't have to worry about their families. I know I don't want the soldier watching my husband's back to be distracted by family problems back here."
The families of Bravo Company spouses and children of "citizen soldiers" whose civilian careers have been interrupted by war are scattered across southern California, Utah and Arizona. The company's deployment has demanded no small amount of courage and resilience on the part of the families left behind. Even full time military families endure such separations with difficulty but they are often more accustomed to them and have a more established military infrastructure to support them.
Nicole Threadgill, 26, is another family support volunteer, responsible for staying in regular touch with twenty other wives on her call list.
But as a working mother of a rambunctious three-year old daughter, Threadgill, wife of Cpl. James Threadgill, said she sometimes finds it difficult to make her calls.
Still, when she can, it's clearly time well spent. "I don't have family here, but all the unit's wives have been really supportive," said Threadgill, an Arkansas native who works full time as a senior customer consultant for FEDEX-Kinkos.
Threadgill said working helps keep her mind off her absent husband. Since his deployment, she has increased her hours and sometimes goes in on Saturdays.
"I miss the daily conversations him being home and just talking," Threadgill said. "I don't watch the news anymore. When I need to know about the weather, I know better now than to turn on the TV."
While her fiancé Sgt. Damien Holmes is deployed, Angela Willis is staying with her parents in American Fork, Utah. Every week, she and her parents, who are Mormons, put her fiancé's name in their temple and ask for him to be blessed.
"When the war first broke out, we would watch it on television," said Willis. "And he kept saying, 'I want to be over there. I want to be over there.' I said, 'That's just your Marine sense kicking in.' He was a Marine for eleven years."
Holmes was supposed to come home for R&R September 29th, but he was kept in Iraq for security reasons, said Willis.
"I know he goes to bed worried about if he's going to come home in one piece or in a body bag. We have a 2 -1/2 year- old boy. I know he means everything to him."
Holmes carries a picture of her and their son Marcus in his wallet behind his ID card, even though he is not supposed to.
"Marcus wakes up every morning and asks, 'Is Daddy coming home from work today?' And I have to say, 'No, Daddy's not coming home today.' "
Back in California, Colleen Phillips, 41, had been having a hard week. Her birthday was coming up and she felt lonely and sad.
"These men and women have been trained to fight," she said, "Those left behind are not trained for this to handle the emotional and physical difficulties."
Phillips had finished her day as a dental assistant and was calling from her cell phone as she drove back to her home in Lakewood, California.
Sometimes it helps her feel better when she and her husband, Sgt. Kevin Phillips, make a date on the web cam.
"He asks me to meet him at 10 p.m. Iraq time. The first time we had a web cam date we just stared at each other for two hours."
They email each other all the time. Phillips opened up her account and read what her husband had written her on August 16.
"I miss telling bedtime stories and singing lullabies, popcorn family movies, morning Pop-Tarts and chocolate milk," his message said. "And I love you. I just can't get that out of my mind. I just feel this deep empty pain in my gut, a constant knot and I know it's because I'm not with you."