Military bases get families ready for war

Behind the battle plans and weapons checks, there are wills to be drafted and child care to contemplate. Life-insurance policies need updating, and mortgages must be located.

In these uncertain times, American soldiers are doing more than just honing their combat skills. They are organizing their personal affairs, and preparing their families for possible deployment. And the military wants to help.

Uncle Sam, it seems, is learning a new lesson: When a soldier's family is ready, a soldier is ready.

Here at Fort Hood, the largest post in the US, with 42,000 soldiers, dozens of services are available for families - from crisis and coping classes to financial-management workshops to child-development skills.

These resources are in place to handle the deployments that occur daily here. (Currently, Fort Hood soldiers are stationed in 20 countries.) But with the possibility of war looming, the classes are taking on new meaning - and filling up fast.

"As you can imagine, services we've offered all along are suddenly more valuable, and everybody wants it today," says Peggy Stamper, director of the Lane Volunteer Center, which offers the military family-readiness classes.

In addition to the mental preparation needed for a long deployment, spouses are taught some tangible lessons as well: Know where the important documents are kept, identify long-term caregivers for the children, update military identification, and make sure you have easy access to all financial assets.

TracyLynn Marquis has taken most of the classes, and feels as prepared as she can in this tumultuous time.

She and her husband, Josh, have been married only a short time, and this could be his first war-related deployment. "I worry all day, and sleep 12 hours a night. But I'll be ready when it comes. For now, I'm just sitting around, hoping it doesn't come," says Mrs. Marquis, without taking a breath.

The new trend toward family readiness has more to do with demographics than anything else.

An army of families to care for

During the Vietnam War, an overwhelming majority of American soldiers were single. Today, 67 percent are married. The military's motto has become: "You don't enlist soldiers; you enlist families," meaning the entire family has to support the lifestyle in order for a soldier to succeed.

But that attitude has been a long time coming, and could be reflective of attempts to bolster the military's dwindling ranks. For example, Fort Hood - which has one of the most extensive family-support networks - is only beginning to realize the full potential of military family readiness.

Ten years ago during Desert Storm, the programs here were uncoordinated and sporadic, and many soldiers' families didn't give them a passing thought.

Now the programs are "more formalized and given more validity by the commanders," says Ms. Stamper.

Anna Ramsey pops a pacifier in her 15-month-old's mouth. She and her husband, Jason, have been married two years, and he has never been gone longer than a couple of months.

"I'm worried, just like every military spouse," she says. "You don't know when they are going to leave, or where they're going, or even how long they'll be gone."

But she's preparing early and getting her support network in place, and believes she'll be OK if Jason leaves.

Most who teach military family readiness discourage families from leaving the base when their spouse is deployed. That's not always easy.

During Desert Storm, for instance, 25,000 of the then-30,000 Fort Hood soldiers were deployed - and thousands of families left as well.

Bobbie Hanlon was one of those. She returned to her native Hawaii with her three children when her husband was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990.

This time, she says, she would stay on base. "It's important to be around families who are going through the same thing as you," says Mrs. Hanlon, a program coordinator at the Lane Volunteer Center.

Her husband is career military, so Hanlon has had to learn how to handle the constant deployments.

"I write a lot of letters and say a lot of prayers," she says. "And I never hide my emotions from him. If I'm mad, I tell him so."

She always warns fellow spouses that the hardest part of the whole experience is the soldier's return. It's not the romantic reunion everyone expects.

A 17-year veteran sergeant at Fort Hood knows that first hand. He says when he got back from his eight months in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, he and his wife had to attend marriage counseling.

"It was real rough coming home. My wife had become independent, and the kids were used to not having me around. I'd lost all respect in the house," says the sergeant, who asked that his name not be used.

He's picking up his youngest son at Clarke Elementary School, one of seven schools on base. The Killeen Independent School District has more than 30,000 students, 60 percent of which are soldiers' children.

Teachers here say it's important for children to be as stable as possible in an unstable situation. That means staying in school and having a regular routine.

"The unknown is a child's worst fear at this age," says Patricia Journey, the school's counselor. "They are gonna feel all these intense emotions, and see their mom go through it as well. It's important to have a place where they feel secure."

Two-soldier homes

Increasingly, though, both spouses are enlisted. Because there's a possibility that both could be deployed at the same time, the military requires they always have a family-care plan.

Olympia and Jeremy Nava are a perfect example of this kind of family. The Army couple have come to pick up five-year-old Michael, who is clutching his Mickey Mouse lunch pail and doing his best to look invisible. The Navas say they do not talk to him about the possibility of war or that they could both be deployed.

He's too young to understand all that anyway, says Olympia, a sergeant.

"We just tell him that we are going to the field to sleep in tents, and that we might be gone awhile."

If there is a situation where both Navas need to be gone, Jeremy's parents will take Michael. It's hard to consider that possibility, they admit. But they will gladly go if needed.

That kind of attitude about deployment is unusual, say long-time soldiers. But then again, this is an unusual situation. Stamper compares the feelings among spouses today to those during Desert Storm.

"There's not the resentment, the grumblings of 'You're taking my spouse away from me, and it's all just for oil,' " says Stamper, decked out in a red, white, and blue sweater and flag earrings.

"This is seen as much more noble, more patriotic. And I think spouses are more understanding."

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