Learning to cope on the home front

Alone: Military spouses left behind after their loved ones were deployed find solace at the Hearts Apart Support Group.

April 26, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

As he travels the desert with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, Tiny Heath is missing a lot at home.

The private first class has missed putting his hand on the belly of his wife, now six months' pregnant, and feeling the baby kick. He missed hearing the heartbeat for the first time. Last month, he missed an important genetic test his wife had to take alone. In a few days, he'll have missed the sonogram and their first wedding anniversary.

And if he stays away until August, he'll miss the birth of their first child.

This week, Julie Heath experienced another first by herself. She attended the first meeting of the Hearts Apart Support Group, which Fort Meade's Army Community Services office is running for those left behind during deployment.

"It's really hard not knowing where he is or what he's doing or when he's coming home," said Heath, a 24-year-old hair-dresser living in Greenbelt. "We don't have e-mail, there's no phones, and the mail takes forever."

Army officials said it's the first time they remember opening a deployment support group to family members such as Heath, who are not attached to a unit at the Anne Arundel County base. The Army held the meeting across the street from the base, so that those without military identification could attend easily.

"We want to take care of all of the families," said Col. John W. Ives, Fort Meade's installation commander. "We want to open those doors."

Ives and his wife, Diana, know the pain of deployment separation. One of their sons is a captain with the 3rd Infantry, the same division in which Heath's husband serves. The other is in basic training at Fort Knox. And because Ives' Army career has included deployments in 30 countries, his wife knows how Julie Heath has felt the past few weeks. It's not all that different from how she once felt, or how her daughter-in-law feels now.

The couple offered practical advice: Take a night out for yourself once in a while, don't let anyone -- especially doctors -- patronize you, and never feel guilty for smiling. And, of course, it's all right to cry.

"There were times that the boys would catch me crying. It didn't happen a lot, but when it did, it gave the boys a chance to comfort me," Diana Ives told the group. "You can teach a child, but for them to really learn something, they have to teach you back."

The couple also suggested labeling letters -- soldiers often receive mail out of order -- making sure packages don't include perishable food and writing down a list of milestones in the event of a rare phone call.

Heath, who moved back to Greenbelt with her parents after one week at Fort Stewart, Ga., where her husband was to be stationed, carries her cell phone at all times. But Tiny Heath has only called three times in six weeks. The last call, on Easter, cut off after 30 seconds.

When the doctors learned Tiny Heath wasn't available for a genetic test to see if he was a carrier for cystic fibrosis, they sent Julie Heath to a genetic counselor. Without the soldier's genetic information, the counselor didn't do much more than talk with the expectant mother about her husband's deployment. And that wasn't the only time she said doctors tried to counsel her.

"On my last appointment, they made me take a survey to see if I was depressed," she said. "I was like, `Look, I just want a sonogram.' "

Thor Jones also feels alone. His wife, Yolanda, was deployed to Iraq with an Army Reserve unit based in western Pennsylvania. Suddenly, the 32-year-old Woodlawn carpenter is a single father of their four boys: two 10 year-olds, one of whom has cerebral palsy, a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old. Before his wife's deployment last month, Jones said, the two had never been apart for more than three days.

"My oldest son, he knows what's going on. He knows where the Army is. The younger ones, they know Mommy's gone, but they don't really understand," Jones said. "When the children go to bed, and I'm by myself, that's when I go through my emotions."

Jones watches reruns of Seinfeld and Friends to fight the loneliness, and tries to look toward his wife's return. He froze a piece of cake for her from their 4-year-old's birthday. And he replays in his head the last time they spoke, when she called from Kuwait before going into Iraq.

Still, support group leaders Jamie Cole and Stacey Hale caution the spouses that reuniting does not always feel so nice. Deployment separation changes a couple. Some spouses are anxious about sex. Others don't realize that a child's bedtime or discipline rules have changed. Some no longer crave the foods they loved, while others devour anything that doesn't taste like sawdust.

Cole and Hale, both veterans of deployments, suggested making a "honey-do" list of repairs for the spouse -- even if that means "breaking" items you've learned to fix yourself. For young children, a "memory chain" of daily events will help the deployed spouse feel included when they return. Older children may prefer to write in a journal.

Hale recommended each spouse fill out a "Reunion Top 10," a fill-in-the-blank worksheet that includes everything from romantic fantasies to what chores the stay-at-home spouse now enjoys. First on the list is: "You are my hero. Describe your thoughts and feelings."

"It's very important that they know we support what they do," Hale said. "For a spouse, that means you don't know what they do, but you support it nonetheless."

Heath exchanged phone numbers with Diana Ives and returned home to Greenbelt to a surprise -- a call from the Ives' daughter-in-law, who lives at Fort Stewart with her baby. She hung up feeling less alone, and more a part of the Army family.

"I thought maybe she'd call," Heath said, "but not as soon as I got home."

Hearts Apart meets the fourth Wednesday of every month at 1900 Reece Road, just outside the gates of Fort Meade. Child care is available with reservations. For more information, call 301-677-5590.

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