'You find a dark corner and you cry.'
Soldiers lament missed family time - and savor every letter from home
BAGHDAD — Usually the cost of war is measured in terms of lives lost and property destroyed. It is expressed as sterile statistics - casualty rates and dollar estimates.
But for most American soldiers, there is a far more personal cost in deploying to distant corners of the world, like Iraq.
It is a cost measured in missed birthday parties and postponed anniversary celebrations. It is measured every night as an empty chair at the dinner table. It is waiting five weeks to see the first snapshot of a beautiful newborn daughter. And it is that aching unspoken fear at home that some morning two men in dress uniforms will appear at the front door with bad news.
"My oldest son, he knows what's going on, so he is very scared right now," says Sgt. James Quinn of Cleveland. "How do you deal with that? You find a dark corner and you cry," he says. "And you pray to God you go home."
He says foremost in his mind while serving in Iraq is that magic homecoming, which right now seems so far away. "It's that one second when you get to see them again that keeps you alive," he says.
Sergeant Quinn's children are ages 6, 4, and 1. Jennifer is due to join the family in October. Quinn says he will probably still be in Iraq when she makes her appearance.
"One of my fears is going home and my kids not even remembering me," he says. "Or forgetting what it feels like to touch and hold your kids and your wife."
Army officials acknowledge that there is no way soldiers can be sent home to attend every significant event in family life. Just within the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, roughly 20 children have been born during the past two months to fathers serving in Iraq.
"It reminds me of just how dedicated these men are. They are making a sacrifice," says Capt. Matt Stuart, the squadron's chaplain. "The biggest fear is that life is going on without us. My job is to remind them that life is going on here," he says.
"We are where we are supposed to be. That's the best way to say it."
Sometimes even chaplains have personal issues to handle. After Captain Stuart left for Iraq, his wife, Ronda, made a habit of closely following news reports about the war. Then one day, their 5-year-old daughter, Emily, asked: "Mommy, is Daddy going to come home dead?"
The chaplain pauses. "Children do know that death is an outcome of war." He says his wife stopped watching the news with Emily.
Pvt. Timothy Hatmaker of Carrollton, Ga., has four children. His youngest, Blake, is 6 and has never experienced a time when his father wasn't home. "He was having trouble sleeping. He had a hard time dealing with it," he says.
His wife got some helpful advice at school. "They told her to give him one of my shirts because it still has my smell on it," Private Hatmaker says. "It helps, but he still cries."
One of the perks of serving in the military is that soldiers are allowed free postage for all the letters they want to write. But in a war zone, sometimes mail delivery can take a month or more. In some cases, mail has been held up for several months, prompting significant complaints from soldiers.
"I've been married six months and seen my wife about a week and a half, but not all at once," says Spc. Adam Nuelken of the 3rd Infantry Division. "I've probably written between 20 and 25 letters to my wife, Letitia," he says.
But other than one letter from his mom, he says he hasn't received any from his wife. "I don't even know if I'm still married," he says. "I love her dearly and think of her constantly. Thinking of her is the only real driving force I have."
Specialist Nuelken adds, "Every day I wait for the letter, and every day it doesn't arrive. So I just hope there is a letter out there from her with good things in it."
Aware of the potential problems with the military mail system in wartime, commanders of the 2nd Squadron purchased two satellite telephones. Each soldier is granted one five-minute call home a week.
The nine-hour time difference between Baghdad and the squadron's home post at Fort Polk, La., means that some soldiers have to wait in line in the wee hours of the morning to catch their wives at home. But the late-night lines suggest it is worth it.
Two days after his daughter, Jada, was born, Sgt. Todd Doss of Syracuse, N.Y., got the good news from the Red Cross. He was in southern Iraq and moving north. Because of the 2nd Squadron's satellite phone, he was able to call his wife and talk to her while she was still in the hospital.
"It's hard," he says. "Two nights ago, I got the first pictures of the baby" - which had been mailed more than a month earlier.
War and wedding plans also don't seem to mix well. Two captains in the 2nd Squadron, Michael Good of Aiea, Hawaii, and Chris Danbeck of Potomac, Md., both had to inform the women they love that the weddings they had long been planning would have to be moved up or postponed after the squadron was ordered to Iraq as fast as possible in mid-March.
Captain Danbeck's wedding to Kristen was set to take place on April 5. The problem was that by April 5, the captain was in southern Iraq and Kristen was in Louisiana. They decided to postpone their church wedding until Chris returns.
Captain Good took the other route: He and Jamie decided to speed up their wedding plans. They had originally planned a September wedding, and had already moved it to mid-April. But when the order came for the squadron to move as fast as possible in late March, Michael and Jamie were married two days before the unit boarded planes for the Middle East.
What's it like to be a newlywed husband half a world away from your wife? "I write her a letter every other day," Good says. It took 43 days until he received his first letter from Jamie. It was dated April 1, the day after he left the United States.
Stuart says if there is a silver lining to long deployments, it is the personal growth that can come from long separations from loved ones.
"The good thing is they are not going to take anything for granted. It creates a real appreciation of their wives and how important their children are," he says. "They will be better husbands and better fathers because of this."