As troops ship out, stress is rising

Specialist Katherine Dean is writing her two children keepsake letters, to say she loves them and explain "why Mom joined the Army."

Cpl. Jeremy Tendler is telling his girlfriend he'll miss Christmas again, for the third year in a row.

First Lt. Stephen Hommel had to cancel a promised father-son kayaking trip when his infantry unit was ordered out a week early. Last Thursday, he hugged his wife and children one last time and boarded an aircraft for Kuwait.

As American troops depart for what could become a war with Iraq, the intimate logistics of family life are often obscured by high-visibility deployments of warships, armored vehicles, and fighter jets. Yet the prospect of an invasion is straining couples and leading some troops to seek ways to stay home. Indeed, as Pentagon leaders debate the strategy and risks of war, some in the rank and file are gauging the costs of a conflict – and finding them too high.

"We have soldiers who don't want to deploy ... because they feel it's ruining their marriage," says Capt. Adam Harris, the psychiatrist of the 3rd Infantry Division, a rapid-deployment infantry unit based at Fort Stewart that is preparing for an Iraq war. "The Army is not conducive to married life," he says.

Marital problems, sleeplessness, irritability, and other signs of stress have grown as war seems increasingly likely, he says. "We are seeing a high percentage of stress reactions" to a possible war, says Capt. Ronald Whalen, the division social worker. The uncertainty is also frustrating, as soldiers in the rapid-deployment division are told that a training exercise or routine mission could shift into active combat.

Adjusting to a wartime mission is a factor, too, Captain Harris says. "We don't really recruit soldiers saying 'War is the ultimate, you're going to fight,' " he says. "We have a kind of a peacetime army."

Significant numbers of soldiers, albeit a minority, are turning to chaplains and mental health officials to seek ways out of deployment. Spouses are telephoning military units to plead that their husbands stay behind. "You'd be surprised how many wives call and ask that their husbands not be deployed," says Corporal Tendler, assigned to the headquarters of a more than 700-strong infantry battalion now heading to Kuwait for at least six months.

Overall, the sentiment among officers, enlisted, and families interviewed at this vast wooded base 40 miles southwest of Savannah is one of hope that war can be averted, and reluctant acceptance if it cannot. Though confident of victory, they are wary of its price in what one mid-ranking officer calls "wasted lives."

"In my old age, I may be becoming somewhat of a peacenik," says Lieutenant Hommel, a Gulf War veteran from San Diego, Calif., who is now an Army chaplain. "Some of these [infantrymen] look like little boys to me, and it's unsettling to put them in harm's way."

Indeed, unspoken fear that departing troops may be injured or killed lies just beneath the surface, say spouses, soldiers, and military officials here.

"You go to the 'family readiness group' meetings and they start talking about wills and power of attorney and you say 'Wow, this is so final,' " says Naomi, Hommel's wife. "The emotions run high and you tend to think in the extreme," she says. "Will they attack the front line? Will I see him again?"

Mrs. Hommel tries to keep her mind off things with a flurry of activity. She arranged to have Christmas card photos taken early with her son and daughter, along with individual shots of her husband in his desert camouflage uniform. She assembled a "creative memory board," a collage of images of her husband to hang near the dining table.

She's also joining a "Walk to Kuwait" launched this month: Spouses, children, and rear-guard battalion members will log miles walked or jogged, aiming for the distance between Fort Stewart and Kuwait.

Other spouses – many of whom are 20-something newlyweds cooped up in small apartments – feel isolated. High turnover in the Army, with one third of soldiers leaving after their first enlistments, can make friendships fleeting. Some spouses return to their parents' homes. For others, loneliness leads to "comfort spending" and debt.

DURING long deployments, spouses also face practical difficulties – from unexpected bills, challenging children, or illness, to major life crises. One pregnant, 21-year-old wife of a soldier in Hommel's unit is afraid that when her husband leaves, she'll be stalked by her ex-husband, a former soldier with access to the base. She's moved to a new address and secured a temporary protective order, but still feels threatened as she awaits the birth of her second child.

Lengthy separations from spouses and children can damage relationships, which "tend to crumble," Harris says.

Specialist Dean, a broadcast journalist with the 3rd Infantry Division, admits that her Army career has taken a toll on her husband, son, and daughter. "My son said, 'Mom, it's time for you to get out.' That broke my heart," Dean says. Her husband, James, a property manager, is supportive to the point of ironing her uniform daily and sometimes polishing her boots. But with his wife gone for most of the past two years, he is weary of the absence.

"You can tell the children anything you want, but she's still not home," he says. Facing possible deployment, Dean feels torn between her devotion to family and her patriotic dream of military service. "I have that guilty-mother feeling," she says, and worries about dying "without saying 'goodbye' to my kids."

Many Army couples, like the Deans, must schedule birthday celebrations, weddings, and even honeymoons between deployments. Staff Sgt. Dione Alston is planning to take his wife, Lawanna, on a long-postponed honeymoon cruise to Jamaica – before or after his tank battalion deploys to Kuwait in November. Each night, he rocks his toddler son to sleep in hopes of forming a bond that will endure through his absence. His biggest fear: "I come back and [my son] looks at me like I'm a stranger."

Alston and Lawanna discuss what she'll buy their two children for Christmas and birthdays, and what home repairs may arise. Her parents live nearby, which helps. But Mrs. Alston admits how worried she is. "I sit at my desk all day and watch CNN. I keep hoping there's no conflict and he comes back." They don't talk about the possibility that he won't return. "It's something we dance around," she says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.