Planned reunion gets put on hold

Reservists: Family members expect a homecoming, but instead are told that their loved ones are staying in Iraq.

April 28, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - This was supposed to be reunion week.

The week 6-year-old Kaitlyn Stevanus would put on a yellow silk dress to see her daddy come home from war. The week for which Teresa Stevanus had booked all those hotel rooms, so that a big group could be waving signs as her husband, Sgt. Sam Stevanus, set eyes on his family for the first time in nearly a year.

But the yellow dress is still hanging in the closet, and the hotel rooms for nine have been canceled.

A week before the 372nd Military Police Company was to fly home, a time of giddy anticipation for the 142 members of the Army Reserve unit and their families, the soldiers were told to stay put.

The Pentagon abruptly extended the tours of 20,000 troops this month to deal with the new spell of violence in Iraq. No Maryland units made the original list. But as the final details were being worked out, the 372nd, which had been set to fly home this past weekend, "dribbled" onto the list, in the words of a Pentagon official.

"It was so close," says Teresa Stevanus, 34, who had grown particularly eager for her husband's return amid the reports of escalating violence in Iraq. "I was just ready to have him back home and have things get back to normal."

So was Kaitlyn, a golden-haired bundle of energy who had woken up every morning with a countdown of the days until her father's return. There was one thing she had pined for the most. "Piggy-back rides!" she declared Monday evening, squirming in her mother's lap.

The turn of events has wrenched the reservists' families, many of whom live near the unit's headquarters in Cresaptown, a small village six miles southwest of Cumberland in rural western Maryland. Some had arranged romantic weekend getaways and cruises. Some had scheduled family trips to Myrtle Beach and Walt Disney World.

Many just looked forward to a resumption of their old lives, when the television news produced fewer jitters; when there was one more person around to help mow the lawn or take a child to the dentist.

"It's taking awhile for the families to adjust" to the extension, said Linda Comer, the family readiness coordinator for the company. Her husband, Keith Comer, is the unit's first sergeant. "It's a combination of anger and frustration and anxiety."

The Army has scheduled a town hall-style meeting Saturday to allow the families to air their grievances before the 372nd's local military staff. "The lieutenant colonel and the master sergeant, I feel sorry for, because they'll be walking into a big, angry crowd," says Teresa Stevanus.

In an e-mail to the families last week, the unit's acting commander, Capt. Scott Steva, tried to put a human face on what many families viewed as a cruel stroke of fate.

"Breaking this news to the soldiers of the 372nd MP CO was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do," he wrote. "All of us thought we were going home and finally had the relief of being out of Iraq."

The rest of his words were not consoling. The unit, which had performed a variety of law-enforcement duties around the cities of Hillah, Najaf and the Abu Ghurayb prison near Baghdad, had a risky new mission.

The Army was having trouble getting supplies to soldiers fighting around Fallujah and Baghdad, Steva wrote. The civilian contractor KBR, a branch of Halliburton Co., needed security for its truck convoys and was not in a position to provide its own. "Hence," Steva wrote, "the 372nd will be providing this security by riding along in the cab of the tractor trailers just like in an Old West stagecoach."

Families say they have been told that the extension will last 120 days. But Steva was less precise. "The extension will end," he wrote, "either when the mission is considered complete or the troops not necessary or other troops have been mobilized and sent to Iraq to replace us."

`One weekend a month'

On Monday afternoon, Teresa Stevanus' father, Richard Huff, picked up Kaitlyn after school - something Sam used to do - and drove her to his house on Cumberland's east side. Kaitlyn's grandmother, Mary Huff, prepared a dinner of grilled ham sandwiches and vegetable soup. When Teresa walked in about 6 p.m. after a 45-minute commute from her job in West Virginia state government, they all sat down to eat.

This has more or less been the routine since the 372nd's deployment in February of last year.

Sam Stevanus, 34, a federal prison guard when he is not in an Army uniform, joined the Reserves eight years ago, a few months after meeting Teresa while out with friends in Cumberland. Sam needed money to pay off college loans. But he also felt a familial calling - his father had served in Vietnam, his grandfather in World War II.

"One weekend a month, two weeks a year," Teresa Stevanus says of reservists' peacetime duties, with some bemusement now. "That's pretty much what you think."

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