Left to cope on the home front

Military: Maryland families struggle with emotions and finances as reservists get called up more often and for longer periods.

November 16, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

SABILLASVILLE - In today's weary ranks of the citizen soldier, the toll on the home front registers first at homes such as Lisa Cantwell's, a picture-perfect cottage in a green valley of corncribs and turning leaves.

Here, during a two-hour conversation on a recent fall morning, Cantwell delivered a kind of casualty report from the family support group she leads for the Army Reserve's 324th Military Police Battalion.

"We've had two who were suicidal, both wives. But they've gotten help; they're coping. ... There are financial concerns, pay issues. We just got a check for $200 to help buy groceries for two families. ... I got an e-mail on the same day from two spouses - one a husband, the other a wife - both worried about their marriages. ... One woman had to put her mother-in-law into a nursing home without her husband there to help. ... We did have a baby shower for all the children 1 year and younger. There were 11 of those. Four have been born since deployment."

And so on. Not to mention the stalled careers, lost sleep, postponed educations, marital infidelities and kids acting up in school. It is an accounting of hard times and brave fronts for the unit's 143 families, interspersed with tears, laughter and sips of coffee.

As the wife of battalion commander Lt. Col. Thomas V. Cantwell, now in Iraq, Lisa Cantwell is sometimes so preoccupied with the concerns of others that she is able to forget her own.

But usually not for long. She was driving home the other day from her 5-year-old's kindergarten class when the radio delivered news of more fatalities in Baghdad. There had been a bombing at a police station that her husband often visits. "I almost couldn't breathe," she said. "It wasn't quite a panic attack, but it was close." She soon learned that he hadn't been hurt, but the moment lingered.

Such is life these days for the families of the nation's military reserve and National Guard members - 154,000 of whom are on duty at home and abroad, many enduring yearlong hitches and multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and the Balkans.

Families of troops in the regular armed forces also know hardship and worry, of course, but that is the customary lot of the full-time soldier. Reservists and members of the Guard, on the other hand, are more accustomed to heeding the call to duty only one weekend a month and two weeks a year - just like the recruiting ads say - leaving plenty of time for jobs, educations and families.

Jeremy Cook, one of Cantwell's charges as a spouse of a 324th member, can tell just how expectations have changed.

A little more than a year ago, his wife, Athena, had just given birth to a son. They were also raising a 6-year-old daughter from his wife's previous marriage, and Cook was looking for a job. His wife was a food inspector in the Army Reserve's 422nd Medical Detachment, a tiny unit that, as Cook puts it, "hardly ever went anywhere. Pardon the expression, but it really seemed like `play army.' "

Missed moments

Play turned serious in February. Athena Cook was involuntarily transferred to the 324th as a medic, and in April she left for Iraq. Since her departure, her son has learned to walk, both children have moved in with her husband's parents in Rockville, and Jeremy Cook has begun a demanding new job in Catonsville, commuting from Germantown and seeing his children only on weekends and Tuesday nights.

"I had the American dream," Cook said, "and now all of a sudden I'm living single and being a weekend daddy."

His stepdaughter, Cheyenne, has had it worse, he said. "For her, there's a new home, a new set of rules, a new school, and a new set of surrogate parents. When I come over on Tuesday nights, it's almost like visiting someone else's family, and not my own."

Cantwell has become accustomed to hearing such accounts at her home in Harbaugh Valley, just south of Maryland's border with Pennsylvania. Signing onto her computer every morning, she usually finds about two dozen e-mail messages from various correspondents among the families. Some pass along jokes, trying to keep spirits up. Others pour out their hearts.

"One of the wives had fought over the phone with her soldier and was upset at the way they'd parted," Cantwell said. "But luckily he called her four hours later. We're kind of gearing up for the holidays, expecting that more of that kind of thing will happen."

If any families have had reason to gripe, it would be those of the Army Reserve's 115th Military Police Battalion, based in Salisbury and Parkville. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the citizen soldiers of the 115th have been deployed for two weeks at the Pentagon; three months at Fort Stewart, Ga.; six months at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba (guarding suspected al-Qaida prisoners); two months at Aberdeen Proving Ground; and, beginning in April, seven months in Iraq, where they remain. They are scheduled to come home Dec. 19.

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