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Domestic draftees

When Mom or Dad goes off to war, grandparents and other relatives step in to help care for the children.

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Anderson, too, admits to periods of sadness. But she quickly shifts into an upbeat mood, pointing out that a few nurses working with her are separated from their children, too. Other nurses, slightly older, "have weddings coming up and grandchildren, so their life is just as changed as mine is." She adds, "I'm very lucky. I like my work. I'm in a nice hotel. And they're going to come and see me." Last weekend the family reunited in Bethesda for Easter.

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Anderson, a reservist for 19 years, is due to retire in November, although her orders are for a year. Abbate hopes she will be home by September.

For now, an electric candle burns night and day in a front window of the family's 200-year-old white colonial. A white service flag with a red border and a blue star also hangs there. "All the relatives have one," Abbate explains. So does the jewelry store.

For Abbate, a cheerful, energetic woman, her new role involves keeping priorities straight. On a spring Saturday, as she and her two young charges stop at a suburban Starbucks before meeting a friend for lunch, she muses about the domestic scene. "I think I did everything this morning. I fed the cats. The house is not as clean as it normally is, but I've been trying. Laundry isn't that difficult to keep up with."

She adds philosophically, "Things get done that have to get done. Those that don't, oh well, there's always tomorrow. And this won't last forever."

Eighteen hundred miles away in Texas, Bill and Jeannine Hirtle reflect on how their lives have changed since their son, Jared, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, was deployed to Iraq at the beginning of February. Instead of their usual monthly trips to visit Jared, his wife, Jenni, and the couple's three children in Temple, near Fort Hood, they now make the two-hour drive two or three times a week. Sometimes they go separately, other times together, depending on Mrs. Hirtle's schedule at the University of Texas, Arlington, where she is an associate professor of education.

"We have a little blowup mattress that's ours, and I keep my shampoo and toothbrush there," Mrs. Hirtle says. "It's a lot, supporting him. We all do it, and we do it with a very good attitude. His wife is a shining light for us. She has a very positive attitude."

Mrs. Hirtle specializes in "lots of hugging and cuddling" with 4-year-old Joshua, 2-year-old Sophia, and 10-month-old Mara. She brings children's books and crafts. Last week she taught a prekindergarten home-school lesson on Noah's Ark to Joshua and Sophia. She cares for the two younger children while Jenni coaches Joshua's T-ball games.

Mr. Hirtle handles the yard work. A few weeks ago, he built a sandbox and added a roof over the patio. A custom woodworker, he also makes toys and furniture.

Beyond practical help like this, the Hirtles offer emotional support during challenging times. For more than a month, Jenni heard nothing from Jared - no phone calls, no letters. "She was getting emotionally drained," says Mr. Hirtle. "She didn't let on, but it was difficult for her. Imagine being all alone with three kids most of the time unless we're there." When Jared finally called, Jenni's relief was palpable.

"It was a real short call, but she just felt so much better," he says. "He's fine. He hasn't been shot at." Jared, too, has been without mail. "The Red Cross tells them two truckloads of letters are waiting."

This marks the second time the Hirtles have helped the young family during a deployment. Last year, when Jared was sent to Kosovo, Jenni and the children moved in with them.

For Mr. Hirtle, these frequent trips come at a time when his schedule is flexible. Last year he was laid off as a corporate trainer. "If Jennie needs help, I can go up at the drop of a hat," he says. As a former Huey helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he knows the challenges of war and separation.

"From my standpoint, it's very rewarding to be needed," he continues. "Of course I would rather Jared be home to fulfill his role - to be the kids' father and Jenni's husband, so we could do what grandparents do, which is to spoil the kids."

When it comes to discipline, Mr. Hirtle follows his daughter-in-law's lead. "She's a very good mother, and has some very good ways she disciplines," he says. "If she has a rule, such as 'If you misbehave, you go to your room,' I'll follow that."

The Hirtles do not know how long Jared will be away. "We pray a lot, and so do all our friends in their churches," Mrs. Hirtle says. "We can feel those prayers. That really sustains us."

As they wait, she reflects on the bonds the family has developed during the deployments in Kosovo and Iraq.

"We've blended into such a close family that Jenni feels like our daughter," Mrs. Hirtle says, her voice filled with joy. "It's our blessing and privilege to be part of their life."

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