E-mail and TV: lifelines for military spouses

Husbands and wives of soldiers keep a low profile, leaning on family and anxiously monitoring news.

Frances Sacca recently received an e-mail from her husband, Master Sgt. Joe Sacca, who's a 35-year Air Force veteran. He mentioned how bad the coffee is in Kuwait. So she immediately fired off a care package that included four pounds of Joe's favorite Maxwell House blend, two pounds of Dunkin' Donuts coffee, his shower to shower talcum powder, and a teddy bear fitted with a T-shirt that says, "Somebody in Woburn, Mass., loves me."

He also uses e-mail to remind her to pay the mortgage and change the car oil

Certainly ever since the mythic Penelope watched Odysseus go off to Troy, the wives of warriors have been left to fend for themselves, raise the children alone, and hope their fighter someday comes home safe. Yet the widespread use of e-mail is one sign that the lives of America's military spouses are far different in this war than they've ever been.

Another big change, husbands and wives say, is the explosion of 24-hour, real-time TV war coverage. The constant flow of images is often both daunting and addictive. Another technology that is far more positive is e-mail, which is revolutionizing the way military families stay in touch.

All in all, the lives of soldiers and their spouses are more intertwined than at any time in history.

"The homefront and the warfront are being pulled together like never before," says Morten Ender, a sociology professor at the US Military Academy at West Point. And that has big implications for the quality of life at home - and even, he says, for how well troops are fighting.

One of the darker sides of the new war is the threat - however faint - of terrorism. In fact, because of that threat, a number of military spouses are keeping a low profile. A number of military spouses are keeping a low profile. Sarah, for instance, doesn't want her last name or her hometown printed in the newspaper. Her husband, Tony, is a sergeant in the Army National Guard who's been called up to fight in the war on Iraq (though he's not allowed to tell her where he is). Like many spouses in this war, Sarah has been advised to live a low-key life - in part to avoid attracting the attention of any potential terrorists. She's even decided not to put a yellow ribbon on the tree outside her house, although the walls inside are plastered with ribbons and pictures of Tony.

"The ribbons are just advertisements" for the fact that you're living alone, she says.

Whether Sarah's approach is overcautious - or just common sense in the post-9/11 era - it is one sign that the lives of America's military spouses are far different from those in any other war.

Tony and Sarah have been married for two years - and this is his second tour of Guard duty. He could be gone up to a year. So Sarah quietly goes about her days, which center on her 6-month-old son, Jonathan. "It's pretty much me and the baby and the dog," she says laughing.

Sarah's approach is a wise one, says Rose Mazzuchelli, who works in the family readiness office at Fort Devens in Ayer, Mass. "Since 9/11, I tell my families not to give any personal info out over the phone - and not to put a flag in their window." Her husband is also deployed, leaving her at home with four kids.

She also tells families: "Do yourself a favor and turn off CNN." She has even stopped her newspaper subscriptions so her kids aren't seeing so much of the daily deluge of war news.

But prying herself away from the TV is hard for Terry Rumsey, wife of Tech Sgt. Jack Rumsey, an Air Force reservist in Kuwait. "It's kind of an addiction," she says, adding that while he's gone, "I don't plan to get much sleep." In some ways, the Massachusetts resident yearns for the days of Vietnam, which Jack also served in. "Back then you got news mostly in the newspaper - and it came two or three days later," she says. Being more removed from the action made normal life more possible.

Observers warn that too much back-and-forth - and too many details - can distract both sides from the tasks at hand. "If a soldier is constantly checking e-mail, they've got one foot at home and one in the war zone" that can impact readiness, says Professor Ender.

In essence, both spouses have to trust that each is one is doing their best in their own sphere.

Indeed, Frances knows surprisingly little about the daily life of the man she calls "my honey." He may be a cook in the mess tent; that's been his Air Force job for several years. But he also may be teaching troops about chemical-weapons defenses.

The thing that gets the family through Joe's absence is their almost nightly family gathering. "They're so good to me," says Frances of her three children.

"Just as long as he comes home," says Leeanne, Joe's only daughter, quietly reminding the group of the central hope of military families across the ages - that their guy returns home soon.

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