Left behind at base in Ga., Army wives fight own war

November 18, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

HINESVILLE, Ga. -- What's most noticeable about Hinesville is something that's missing from it: men.

It's the women in this south Georgia town who referee Little League and soccer. It's women who are coaching expectant mothers through labor. It's women who line up at the grocery stores, banks and gas stations.

The local playhouse is offering the female version of "The Odd Couple." Under consideration for future productions: "Steel Magnolias" and "Nunsense," which feature largely female casts.

Ever since Fort Stewart -- the Army post that is Hinesville's reason for being -- dispatched its 14,000 mostly male troops to the Persian Gulf in August, the face of Hinesville has changed.

It is a woman's face -- and, Lord, she is tired.

"Here's my tally," said 28-year-old Debbie Gordon, whose battalion commander husband is in Saudi Arabia. "Of the 425 wives in the battalion: three attempted suicides, three miscarriages, seven births, four sick babies, six deaths in the family, one emergency hysterectomy, one wife harassment, one mental ward commitment and one attempted murder. I wrote my husband recently: 'You guys may not be fighting a war, but we're fighting a war of our own back home.' "

Not since the Vietnam War have so many military wives been left to fend for such an extended period -- three months, and possibly many months more -- of missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. Worse yet are the simple everydays. Even they have lost their familiar texture.

"All I can think about is when he comes home," Kim Ames, 26, said of her husband, David. "At the end of each night, I put an X on the calendar and think to myself: "Another day down.' "

In Hinesville, population 22,000, the deployment of the 24th Infantry Mechanized Division has forced a reorganization of everything about this community: its schools, its churches, its families and its economy.

More than half of Hinesville's 8,000 students have at least one parent absent, and school counselors are bracing for a traumatic Christmas. Since September, many teachers have incorporated Operation Desert Shield into their lesson plans. At Joseph Martin Elementary School, the 850 students there explore weekly watch words" such as "patriotism," "responsibility" and "cooperation." Many children keep photographs of their parents at school.

Churches that would normally stress family activities are focusing on single-parent programs and emotional support groups.

"These families are not normal families anymore," said the Rev. J. David Hanson, pastor of First United Methodist Church, which has lost 52 members to Saudi Arabia. "We are dealing with issues like hope, faith, trust and death. These people don't come to church for a pep talk. They're looking for something deeper."

More than 3,000 military families have left Hinesville since August. A sign on one mailbox announces: "Gone home to Momma."

The 10,000 families that have chosen to remain have done so with varying degrees of difficulty. Some families have moved in together, sharing expenses and child-care responsibilities while spouses are away. Until their husbands left, many women had never before managed household expenses. Some had never driven.

In the months since Operation Desert Shield began, Fort Stewart has offered lessons in driver education, basic automobile maintenance and self-defense. The post also has set up a telephone hot line, staffed by auto mechanics, to answer questions about car problems.

In addition, wives have learned how to read their husbands' pay slips. Inquiries about pay have been superseded by only one other question: "When is he coming home?"

"I had one major's wife ask me where to sign the check," said Mrs. Ames, a clerk at the post exchange. "She was about to put her signature on the memo line."

In the works: "readjustment" workshops to help the women acquaint their returned husbands with their newfound independence.

The Army's Family Assistance Center still gets 75 walk-ins and 200 telephone calls a day from spouses with concerns or problems. During a "Mothers Day Out" recently, 37-year-old Susan Freakley, who has five sons under the age of 13, stopped by the center for a much-needed break while her children were in day care at church.

"As busy as my husband Ben has been with the battalion, he has probably written more letters to me than I've gotten off to him," she said. "He knows what's happening here, and it's not easy. There's school, there's soccer, there are meals, and always in the back of my mind I'm concerned about [the potential for] fighting. I'm getting tired, and when I'm tired enough, I think I'll leave Hinesville and take the children to my parents. I don't want to be so burned out that there's nothing left of me when Ben gets back."

The local economy is also severely affected. Since the deployment, retail sales in Hinesville have fallen 30 percent to 40 percent, according to Gary Dodd, president of the local Chamber of Commerce in this town that's wrapped in U.S. flags and yellow ribbons.

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