Returning troops find gulf on home front Soldiers now battle letdown, divorce

April 28, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

HINESVILLE, Ga. -- Josh Reggler isn't sure who Mama is -- the young Army sergeant who went off to war for seven months or the grandmother who cared for him while his military mother was away.

"Who's Mama? Who's Mama?" Sgt. Denean Reggler asks her younger son, who will soon turn 2. The child looks up into his mother's expectant eyes -- his tawny, round face a blank. "Who's Mama? Who's Mama?" she asks again.

The boy's response: stony silence.

"He calls us both Mama now -- me and his grandmother," explains his 25-year-old mother, a single parent who has spent her first month home from the Persian Gulf looking for a baby sitter and a new house to rent and gently reminding Josh and his brother, Raheem, 5, that she is Mama.

Such was the homecoming for Sgt. Denean Reggler.


In the nearly two months since the first American soldiers began arriving home from the Middle East, there have been joyous community celebrations, warm family reunions and, as one contented girlfriend here put it, "some great nights of good lovin'."

But the homecoming has brought heartache, as well: divorce, problems with sex and intimacy, difficult wartime memories and a painful sense of letdown.

Military psychologists and social workers have been preparing soldiers and their families for their reunion almost since the deployment began last August. Because the war was short and the casualties light, they say most troops and their families will easily readjust. But everyone will need tending.

"I'm telling my people that [their] marriage is in danger. This is a real danger point for anybody," said Maj. Matthew Horne, a chaplain in the Army reserves in Charlotte, N.C. "Everyone has been stretched, and it's helpful to know where the rocks in the channel are."

The South Georgia community of Hinesville, population 21,000, was virtually emptied of men when the 24th Infantry Mechanized Division's 18,000 troops at neighboring Fort Stewart joined Operation Desert Shield in August. It was the women in this military town who refereed Little League, coached expectant mothers through labor, worked the finances and cared for the children.

"He was gone for seven months, and I would have given my right arm to have had him home again," 32-year-old Jane Efinger-Hayden said about her husband, Sgt. Dan Hayden. "You throw yourself into it for so long. It was letters to your husband, getting boxes to your husband, taking care of family relationships, going to work, going to meetings. It was your husband, your husband, your husband, your husband.

"Now he's home, and it's like there's nothing to look forward to," she said. "Sometimes, it's like the war never happened."

On Friday, an appreciative Hinesville will honor its soldier-neighbors with its version of a New York-style ticker-tape parade: Armed with leaf blowers, workers will blow 300 pounds of white confetti off the city's dozen or so two-story buildings as 10,000 soldiers march by.

The deployment has had a profound impact on the local economy: Housing starts, usually 22 a month, dwindled to an average of four. One month, there were none. At least 19 businesses closed, and overall retail sales dipped 25 percent. The rental vacancy rate climbed to 45 percent, soaring to 70 percent in the mobile home parks that cater to military families.

In his worst month, real estate broker Allen Brown sold only nine houses, and he couldn't seem to give away rental housing. To reduce costs, he dropped advertising, let his membership in the Rotary Club lapse and cut back the hours of his staff, cleaning service and groundskeeper. Over the course of the deployment, sales dived 50 percent, and Mr. Brown lost as much as $15,000 a month in income.

Over a recent 15-day period, Mr. Brown rented to returning soldiers more than 200 houses and condominiums, and he expects to sell a record 55 houses this month.

"Someone called my property manager at 8:30 yesterday morning to give notice, and by quarter of 9, the place was rented," he said. "That's the way the demand is now. Life is good again."

A couple of grimmer statistics: The number of domestic disturbances reported to local police -- which dipped significantly during the deployment -- returned in March to 58, the same number reported in August. Too, local attorneys report an "avalanche" of divorce filings.

A study two years ago of Navy families in Norfolk, Va., indicates that it usually takes six to eight weeks for a family to get back into synch after a deployment and that the most difficult time for the family isn't during a deployment, but just after it.

"Re-establishing intimacy in a relationship and reuniting with your children in a real way isn't something that should be hurried," said Daryl Obrien, a social worker with Navy Family Services in Norfolk who conducted readjustment workshops for 5,000 sailors on the USS Saratoga during its recent voyage home.

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