For reserves, a private battle

Sacrifices: With war in Iraq looming, thousands in Maryland are faced with the wrenching prospect of a lengthy separation from their jobs and families.

March 13, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

As he gets ready to leave Maryland for a war zone, Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Berlyn Lessig has had to split his new family apart. He took his three children from the Westminster home they had shared with their step-siblings and turned over custody to his ex-wife in Pennsylvania.

Sgt. Shannon Dutch of Odenton has placed her two kids in care of their grandparents, who are dealing with diapers and discipline for the first time in three decades.

Sgt. 1st Class Todd Pekel of Annapolis is still looking for the right words. How do you tell a 2-year-old that it might be a year before he sees his father again?

"He doesn't have any concept of time," Pekel says of his boy, Nicholas. "It's just going to happen - Daddy won't be there one day."

These are the little-seen battles before the war, the private struggles of thousands of Maryland reservists leaving families and jobs for the military buildup in the Middle East.

Lessig, Dutch and Pekel are soldiers with the 400th Military Police Battalion, an Army Reserve unit at Fort Meade that for a few weeks now has been running drills and packing gear for a likely deployment to the Persian Gulf.

In Maryland, nearly 3,400 Reserve and National Guard troops have been called to duty so far in what is expected to be the biggest national deployment of reservists since the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

The Pentagon is keenly aware that long deployments strain reservists' families. Troop cuts after the Cold War have placed a heavier burden on the reserves, whose deployments have grown longer and more frequent.

Programs to smooth the abrupt transition from citizen to soldier have expanded in recent years. But there are only so many ways to sugarcoat the sudden disappearance of a mother or father, a husband or wife.

"It's having someone you love ... out of the family and put in harm's way," says Barbara J. Wilson, family program director for the Army's 99th Regional Support Command, in Pittsburgh, which oversees reservists in Maryland and four other states. "There's a hole, there's something lacking that has to be filled in by other people, whether it's their job or the emotional support that person gave the family."

As part of what the military calls "family readiness," reservists have been counseled on drawing up wills, buying extra life insurance, arranging child care and making ends meet on a military paycheck. The goal is not just to ease a loved one's departure, but to make sure soldiers aren't so worried about their families that their battlefield performance suffers.

The homeland security needs after 9/11 and the military buildup near Iraq have meant back-to-back deployments for some reservists.

The 150 soldiers in the Headquarters Company of the 400th Military Police Battalion had just returned from a yearlong assignment guarding the National Security Agency, at Fort Meade, when word came that they were needed again, this time overseas.

"It has created havoc with a lot of the soldiers' families," says Sgt. Maj. Ronald Dahms, the battalion's operations manager.

The sacrifices proved too much for five soldiers, who sought and received discharges because they are single parents or would face other extreme hardships if forced to leave home.

Spc. Olusola Ayoodugbesan, 37, is going overseas, but hurting.

He will miss his son's first day of preschool, and he can only guess what else. He prays that his wife will be able to manage the household alone. His military paycheck, smaller than what he had earned as a Maryland correctional officer, covers little more than basic household expenses. One of the first things to go was cable television.

"The military is better for someone who's single," he says. "Eventually, one" - the military or one's family - "has to give way."

He is looking forward to returning to his job at the state prison in Jessup. But it will be as if time stood still for two years. "The possibility of being passed over for promotion is very high."

Within the battalion, there is a sobriety about the prospect of not coming home. The unit guards camps that house prisoners of war, refugees or delinquent American soldiers. While not on the front lines, they are not far away, either.

Lessig, 34, recently purchased a second life insurance policy. He and his wife just bought an old Victorian house in Westminster. The insurance will help cover mortgage payments, he says, "in the event I don't come home."

When he isn't commanding the 400th's Headquarters Company, Capt. Derrick Martin, 38, of Silver Spring, earns about $75,000 a year as a physical therapist. Though his rank entitles him to a decent living, his military salary still amounts to a large pay cut. So his wife is renting empty bedrooms to her sister and a friend while he is gone.

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