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Can't count the days

Military | Combat deployment can be especially tough for reservist families. The Virginia National Guard and others are trying to help

Issue: "Foster care's future," March 5, 2005

Patrick McCarron joined the Virginia National Guard in the wake of 9/11, says his wife Inna, because "it just shook him so much. He wanted to do something." So Mr. McCarron, who worked in maintenance at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., spent the next few years as a "weekend warrior." They knew he could be shipped overseas but, like many Guard and Reserve recruits, "thought it would be a more local-type thing," she says, probably helping with homeland security.

They were mistaken. Sgt. McCarron of the 116th Infantry unit was activated in March, 2004. For Mrs. McCarron it was a terrible shock: "I just wanted to cry." She was newly pregnant, had four kids, and had just learned how to drive (they met in her native Kazakhstan 12 years ago). He left for Afghanistan in July, leaving behind Inna, Michael, 2, Dorothy, 5, and twins Alex and Claudia, 7. Aileen was born several weeks later.

Mrs. McCarron is proud of her husband, but the separation is difficult despite frequent phone calls. She laughs often, but it seems like a way to fight off tears. Two soldiers from his unit were killed in September. She doesn't watch the news and she doesn't count the days. "It's too hard to count the days," she says, in the living room of her modest West Virginia home. "I concentrate on what my kids need and try not to think about bad things."

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Overseas deployment is seldom easy, but active-duty soldiers expect it and their families often live on bases, where there is a built-in support network. For the families of many reservists now in Iraq and Afghanistan, overseas deployment can be especially trying. National Guard and Reserve officials have a variety of programs to help ease the strain, and a group led by a Baptist pastor in Virginia is about to release a new manual aimed at helping pastors and churches minister to military families, but the well-being of reservist families will continue to be a major concern.

It's an important issue for reasons that go beyond the military's duty to look after its people. At House Armed Services Committee hearings in February, Pentagon officials said that mobilizing enough soldiers from already stretched Guard and Reserve units to staff the next rotation in Iraq will be a "challenge." Currently just under half of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are reservists (although the Pentagon plans to reduce that number this year). Recruiting goals in several branches of the military are not being met, and if the families are unhappy, recruitment and retention becomes that much harder.

Moreover, soldiers distracted by personal problems are less effective. "The bottom line [for family support programs] is to make sure that a Joe sitting in his foxhole in Iraq doesn't have to worry about his family," says Capt. Colin Noyes, who runs the Virginia National Guard's Family Assistance Center program.

There can be a lot to worry about. As soon as a spouse is deployed, goes the saying, "Everything breaks, everything leaks, everything quits working." For some spouses, just getting a car or plumbing repaired can be stressful, never mind handling the family finances or rearing children alone.

For about a quarter of reservist families, activation means a pay cut. Kay Baber, the State Volunteer Coordinator for the Virginia National Guard, reports that separation pay and tax breaks augment soldiers' salaries and some major employers make up lost wages so that about half of reservist families keep the same income. The remaining families actually earn a little more money on active duty.

The most serious issues usually involve spousal relationships and children. Separation alone can affect marriages; sending one spouse into a war zone, from which news media send back daily reports of American soldiers killed or wounded, makes it even more stressful for all military families even though the vast majority return home safely.

Chrissy Pilley's husband Casey, a sergeant in the 401st Army Division, escorts convoys in Iraq. Sometimes he's out of touch for a week or so and the hardest thing, she says from her home in Ft. Hood, Texas, is "not knowing what's going on, what kind of mission it is until it's over." Johnny Almond, a retired Air Force chaplain who now pastors the Colonial Beach (Va.) Baptist Church, says that some spouses can't help but treat deployment like a funeral. "It was like he died," one wife told him.

Chaplains and others who work with military families say some children become angry and frustrated when a parent is deployed and it shows up at school, or even in eating disorders or nightmares. When the father is gone, Mrs. Baber says, boys ages 10-15 will sometimes burden themselves feeling that they need to be the "man of the house."

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