Families enlist to help one another

As more reservists and guardsmen head to Iraq, relatives find comfort together.

One lady brings baked beans. Another, fried chicken. The hot dogs boil in a small electric cooker plugged in near the fax machine. Then there is the big cake, coated in sugary-sweet white icing. It congratulates anybody with a birthday this month. Two balloons, a bit deflated, bob around in a corner of the room.

A year ago, no one here had ever met. And yet today these strangers are becoming something of a family - even if not exactly by choice.

As the war in Iraq drags on and tours of duty are extended, those left behind - wives, husbands, children, and parents across the country - are increasingly pulling together to support one another.

They celebrate anniversaries and holidays, share information on how to fill out this or that military form, pass around phone numbers for plumbers, take care of one another's children, and empathize with one another's stories of frustration and loneliness.

This sort of support might be par for the course for families of enlisted soldiers, who often live close together in and around military bases. But it is less familiar ground for National Guard and reservist families, who are usually not as prepared - emotionally or practically - for such long separations from their loved ones.

"The power of attorney from my husband is about to run out; what in the world should I do?" the wife of a National Guard member wants to know. She has bills to pay, a business to try to keep afloat, and taxes to figure out. She is told she needs originals of her husband's papers - not certified copies - to extend the power of attorney. She looks as if she is going to cry.

"My children's Social Security numbers are not in the military database, and I need to arrange medical benefits," another woman begins, raising her hand.

After listening to an answer, she continues, exasperated, "But I was never sent the forms."

"What form?" a woman sitting across the room wants to know. "Is there a form?"

And so it goes. One Saturday every month, the families of members of District of Columbia National Guard's 547 Transportation Company meet here, in a little room at the East Capitol Armory building - just as so many similar groups meet elsewhere across the country - to socialize, to chat, and to try to sort it all out.

The National Guard and Reserves have never before been called up in such great numbers, says Maj. Oliver Clark, the family-readiness coordinator in the District of Columbia, whose job it is to oversee and facilitate the support and information meetings. And so there has never been so much need for such community building.

"We learned our lessons from the Gulf War, where reservists and National Guard soldiers were prepared for war, but their families, it was felt, often were not," adds retired Lt. Col. Karen Saunders, who was brought in to run the drop-in and 24-hour call-in family-readiness centers. Families of the deployed can turn to these centers with problems or questions.

Today, says Colonel Saunders, with some 154,000 National Guard and reservists deployed in Iraq and elsewhere, every US state and territory has a family- readiness coordinator and a center.

"Everyone is preaching family readiness," she says. "And these support groups are meeting all over the place." In sparsely populated areas or regions where families might be spread out, the military has moved to set up satellite family centers, or emphasized the call-in system and "buddy lists" of family members.

"Even someone on the other side of a mobile phone giving you resources and asking you if you are OK is something," she says.

The monthly family group meetings are formed with the consent of the commander of the deployed company, and it is often the spouse of the commander who takes charge of them. And so, Akiba Freeman, whose husband, Malik, is commander of the 547, leads the Washington group, with Denise Woodruff, wife of the company's first sergeant, serving as her deputy.

The monthly program is packed and varied: Different military personnel thank the families for their support, finance people walk them through the maze of tax papers and benefits, lawyers discuss everything from lawsuits to house foreclosures, psychologists talk about family stress, clergy offer words of comfort, friends offer advice, and social workers lead debates on the pros and cons of frequent phone calls to the family member overseas and the wisdom of taking offered 15-day leaves to come home.

Sitting on the couch in the corner of the room, his wife's hand gently holding his forearm, is Specialist Vincent Short. He is the one member of the company who is already back from Iraq, but no one here is envious of that.

Short returned on a stretcher in late August, injured in an accident in which another member of the company was killed.

Altogether, according to Pentagon statistics, some 59 National Guard members and reservists have been killed while serving in Iraq.

"You get caught up over there and you begin thinking only about yourself," Short says, explaining what it's like for the guardsmen in Iraq. "When you call home and hear ringing on the other end, it's like a plane taking off. And then your wife answers and it's like flying."

But, he says, looking around, "If she cries or tells you she does not have enough money for diapers for the baby, you feel like crashing. All you want is good news."

Not emotionally prepared

For most of those gathered at these monthly meetings, patience is wearing thin. Their husbands, wives, or children had signed up with the Guard for a whole list of reasons: Patriotism was one, indeed. But the extra money earned - for what usually amounts to one weekend a month and two weeks' training over the summer - was often more of an incentive. And now, as time passes, and holidays alone loom, the separations are becoming more and more difficult.

Although the Pentagon has announced plans to rotate out many of those who have been in Iraq for a long time, no one here is sure what this means for them. "Don't get your hopes up," they warn one another. The company was called up in January, and left for Iraq in April.

"It's a livable situation," says Ms. Freeman, a full-time social worker with a baby daughter. "But it's not pleasurable. I did not sign up for this." She will spend Thanksgiving with her parents. "I have stuff to be thankful for. I know that." Among them are her family and the support she gets from the monthly group meetings.

"I think he will quit the reserves once he gets back," says Octavia Williamson, speaking of her husband, Anthony, as she heads down the hall to the Thanksgiving party for the kids. Her twin daughters, Arjazenia and Allaiha, are painting little clay turkeys at a table with a half dozen other children. Earlier they had been busy painting "Happy Thanksgiving" cards for their dad.

Their father missed their fourth birthday last January, and is almost certain to miss their fifth.

"I tell them the president has to send some good people over there," says Ms. Williamson. "But it's not easy. Especially around holidays. Or birthdays. Or any day, actually."

Thanksgiving and Christmas are particularly tough, says Major Clark. "People find themselves going through fits of anxiety and loneliness, so we try and get them to be as active as possible and get their minds thinking about other things. The main thing is not to leave people alone at home, thinking and getting down."

Missing Scooby Doo - and Mom

Nine-year-old Trae Von Riggens, who has come to the meeting with his grandparents, has a visit to a theme park on his mind. His mom, now in Iraq, used to take him to Kings Dominion amusement park.

These days he shuttles between his dad, with whom he did not grow up, and his maternal grandparents. There have been numerous promises when it comes to the amusement park, but no follow through, he explains. He has not "even seen" his favorite ride - the Scooby Doo roller coaster - for close to a year, he says, sighing. His next visit there, as he sees it, really depends on President Bush.

"I don't like him [Bush] because he made us go to war for nothing.... That's what my other grandparents told me," whispers Trae. "I don't know for sure if that is true. But I don't want to argue."

All he is interested in, he says as he snaps open his bag of chips, is the amusement park.

"Or even just Mom," he admits, sort of sheepish, "never mind about Scooby or the Kings Dominion."

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