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For those left behind, a struggle to cope

Deployments transform life at German base

BAUMHOLDER, Germany -- At the US Army post here, where nearly 90 percent of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq, messages of love and worry decorate a large sheet of red-trimmed paper hanging over the entrance to the high school.


"Please come home," wrote one teen. "May God be with you," wrote another. A third simply scrawled, "Stay Safe."

One floor up, an airy conference room has been transformed into a weekly drop-in center for students struggling with the pressure of having one or even two parents on duty in Iraq.

"Cumulative stress, that's what we're seeing," said Shirley M. Lips, the school's guidance counselor.

"There's more truancy and more illness. . . . I see more of an increase of kids being upset, going off on each other, shorter fuses all around. And the tears, they come quicker. These big guys just started [crying] last week," Lips said.

These are hard times for families left behind by troops serving extra-long tours of duty in Iraq. Despite the welcome news over the weekend that deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been captured, US military officials' sobering assessment is that the insurgents' attacks on US troops will continue.

Children have to deal with the ugly reality that a parent might not return.

Spouses have to struggle month after month as single parents, raising and comforting children while trying to keep their own fears in check.

"I don't watch the news, and if I hear or walk by something on Iraq, I don't look at it. It freaks me out," said Kerstin Madden, whose husband, Charles, is deployed in Iraq with the 21st Theater Support Command, 200th Materiel Management Center.

"I can't show my emotions in front of the children; I have to wait until they go to bed to let myself go," said Madden, 32, as she laid out dinner for her two children in the family's apartment on the Sembach Annex base.

If there is opposition to the US operation in Iraq, it is not easy to find on the nearly two dozen Army and Air Force bases known as K-Town, or the Kaiserslautern Military Community, located in southwestern Germany.

The occasional letter in the military's daily Stars and Stripes newspaper complains about how the Iraq war was decided and carried out, but for the most part the focus is on soldiers' jobs and the hope that they return safely.

"I think [the operation] is worth it. . . . I don't know if every single thing is worth it, but that's what he signed up to do, and I'll defend him," said Nekashe Faulk, 32, whose husband was deployed to Iraq almost a year ago with the First Armored Division.

"I tell my children not everybody is as fortunate as we are, not everybody has the same beliefs and freedoms, and that's what your dad is doing, fighting to give others the same freedoms," said Faulk, who lives with the couple's two children in military housing in Baumholder.

Military life has always been hard on spouses. Families are frequently uprooted and relocated. Deployments to far-flung places separate people for months at a time, and every military operation entails risks.

But the current operation in Iraq has added new tensions and fears to this already difficult life. In the US European Command, the percentage of soldiers deployed as part of the Iraq operation has at times risen to nearly 50 percent, said a military official.

Tours of duty running up to 12 months will probably have to be repeated, given the military commitments the United States will have in Iraq for some time.

The danger from guerrillas is higher than that faced by soldiers in recent missions -- Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

"It's nerve-wracking, turning on the television and seeing what's happening [in Iraq] on the news every day," said Brandi Inman, whose husband, Christopher, left for Iraq in early October, leaving her alone with four children under age 7.

"But I don't regret his decision to join up. This is his dream, to be in the military, and he's happy. And I can't take away his dream," she said, spooning baby food into the mouth of their 7-month-old daughter in the family's sparsely decorated apartment on the Sembach base.

The military has worked hard to address the problems that arise when soldiers are away from home for so long.

A special, mandatory seminar for soldiers before they deploy advises them on things they need to check before they go, such as having a will and ensuring that a spouse knows how to access accounts and pay bills.

The seminar also talks about how upon their return family life may not be as the soldier imagined and, if not handled sensitively, could lead to conflict.

The issue of postcombat stress gained more attention after three soldiers newly returned from Afghanistan killed their wives at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2002.

"I think there's a challenge that always exists when returning, and the person who has been away needs to step back and see what changes have taken place between then and now," said Major Laurence Holgate, 45, in a telephone interview from Iraq, where he isdeployed as part of the 21st Theater Support Command.

"You can't just walk into the house and say, `I want it to happen like this,' " said Holgate, whose wife and two children live in Kaiserslautern town.

Recently, in recognition that easing back into family life may pose challenges, the Army recently mandated half-days of work the first week back for soldiers returning to European bases from deployment.

Military units also have emphasized their voluntary family support groups -- some started recently -- to maintain close contact with those whose spouses are in Iraq.

These groups do everything from collecting money for Christmas gifts for young families who might be pressed for cash to regularly checking on other spouses to make sure they are doing all right, said participants in the family readiness groups.

"The basic idea is that if you can keep the spouses happy, you can keep the military guy happy," said Denise C. Calabria, public affairs specialist with the 21st Theater Support Command. "Then they are not all stressed out and can do a better job."

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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