Many spouses have grown, changed in soldiers' absence WAR IN THE GULF

WARTIME WIVES

March 06, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington

Through her wartime letters to him, Carole Maxwell has tried to prepare her Army sergeant husband for the changes in his young, diminutive wife back home.

She's lost weight in the seven months he's been gone. Styled her "flat, plain, country girl hairdo" into a full and fluffy do. Abandoned her conservative dress in favor of such new purchases as lace-trimmed leggings and a denim jacket with rhinestones, beads and fringe. Broadened her taste in music to include soul, country, pop -- even Bach. And the 22-year-old woman who didn't know how to change a tire has replaced the struts and axle bearings on her husband's car and can now talk "wheel assemblies" with the best of 'em.

Most of all, says the wife and mother of two toddlers, she now possesses something she never had before.

Guts.

"I've been the head of the household -- I've had to realize that if I don't do things, they won't get done," says Ms. Maxwell, who awaits the return of her husband, Sgt. Richard Maxwell, to their trailer home at Fort Bragg, N.C. "I used to be really timid, but I'm not anymore. I've become a little feisty and more ambitious."

She's told her husband about fixing the car -- "he could not believe it" -- and warned him about her newfound confidence "before he has to be hit with it. "I wanted to let him know that I do things a little differently now."

While many of those serving in the gulf will be coming home changed men and women as a result of the experience of war, many of their spouses back home say they, too, have changed in ways they never anticipated.

"I have grown up," says Donna Shifflette, a 34-year-old military wife in Fayetteville, N.C. "I thought I was independent, and lo and behold, I wasn't. I never made a decision about the household without my husband's consent."

"A lot of guys are going to be very surprised," says Laura Langner, president of a wives association at Fort Bragg. "These are not going to be the same women they left."

At one extreme are women who've learned to drive, or even learned English, in their husbands' absence. More typical are those such as Marylander Pat Dinneen, 35, who's renovated the basement, written a children's book and fixed the dishwasher -- all firsts for her -- while her psychiatrist husband has been aboard the USS Comfort hospital ship.

Ms. Shifflette, mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, says she has more self-esteem than ever before. She's doing the family finances and using credit cards for the first time. She's fixed the toilet ("I know it's no big deal, but I'd never done it before"), replaced windshield wipers on her car and mowed the lawn.

"When I told my husband all these things, he said, 'Wait, I'll do it when I get back.' I said, 'No. If anything, I want you to teach me more. I need to know more in case this ever happens again.' "

For Mary Jo Kleiger, 40, a newcomer to Wheaton, the separation from her Navy psychologist husband has forced her to make friends quickly and seek out resources in her new community.

"A situation like this brings out both the worst and the best in a person," says the mother of a 10-month-old son. "I had to face the feeling of being helpless and totally dependent, go through that, and then find the best in myself and be productive in a difficult situation."

While most spouses see their increased independence as a plus, changes at home can often create additional wrinkles in the readjustment of military families, mental health experts say.

"Women who were helpless around the car, helpless around the finances, dependent on their mates for solutions are now independent -- and their mates don't know it," says Dr. Joseph L. Mancusi, former associate director of psychology for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"There will be the expectation that everything will be the way you left it. But you're coming home to a psychologically different woman and, in some cases, children who have different relationships because of the loss of father.

"It's not the same ballgame. In many cases, it's a better ballgame. But it's not the same."

Sgt. Major Carl Shifflette Jr., for instance, was taken aback by his wife's new initiative. In a telephone conversation last week, Ms. Shifflette told him she was going to deposit a check she'd received.

"Oh, we are making decisions, aren't we?" her husband quipped back.

"I said, 'Oh, sorry, but you have to understand. You've been gone for six and a half months. I've had to make decisions.' "

When her husband returns, she's told him she'll share the finances and other chores that used to be exclusively his. "He's changed. I've changed," she says. "Now we'll both have to accept each other as changed people."

Dr. Richard Perlmutter, director of counseling and therapy centers at Sheppard Pratt, agrees that while those deployed go through the "transformative experience" of war, those staying at home are often equally transformed by "finding out they can survive."

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