Tuesday, February 26, 2008

This Can't be Normal

So it happens to everyone. . . but can this be normal? I was worrying on my side of the globe, but the little information I had didn't paint the entire picture.

In mid-May I had a very anxious night. I was unsettled and could not put my finger on the reason. That night I began tearing up the dining room carpet to see what was underneath. People who know me know that when I am anxious I tackle big projects that may or may not have any purpose. Did I want to tear up the carpet? Eventually, maybe to refinish a wood floor or put down new carpet. Did I really want to tear out my carpet right now? Probably not, but something inside me kept tearing at the edges and pulling it back a little more. After discovering an acceptable wood floor, I stopped and folded laundry before going to bed. The carpet did come up in the summer of 2007 and we laid a laminate floor instead of refinishing the existing one.

Day 1
Early the next morning I checked my email. I learned that my husband had been admitted to the theater hospital for stomach pain. He was given fluids, antibiotics, and pain medication. The doctors suspected a bacterial infection, but scheduled a colonoscopy to check things out. WHAT?? My husband was in the hospital and I couldn't be there? That about drove me nuts!

Day 2
The next day test results were positive for salmonella in his system, most likely due to improperly cooked food. He was given a GI cocktail to flush out his system, 1000 mg Tylenol, and a mixture of high-powered antibiotics to kill the salmonella bacteria.

Day 3
Sean was struggling with pain and nausea, so he was sedated for most of 24 hours. The nurse said since his infection was severe it would likely take a while for him to start feeling better. Diarrhea, pain, cramping, and dizziness continued.

Day 5
On the fifth day in the hospital the doctor suspected that Sean’s gall bladder was infected from the salmonella poisoning. He ordered a CT scan to see if it should be removed.

Day 6
Sean was taking medication for nausea every four hours until it was under control. The Tylenol was taking care of the pain, so the doctor decided to send him back to his quarters and back to work the following day. He was told if he had pain or symptoms got worse during the next five days he was to return to the hospital. In five days he dropped from 200 to 175 pounds.

It was frustrating for Sean to go back and forth with no clear-cut decisions. 1st there will be a colonoscopy. 2nd there will not be a colonoscopy. 3rd there will be a colonoscopy and an endoscopy. 4th no scopes. 5th you will have a CT scan. 6th no scan is necessary. You are fit for normal duty, come back if you have any more problems.

Two days after his release from the hospital Sean was doing his PT on the track (couldn’t run or jog, only walk) when he encountered the surgeon from the hospital. Sean described his continuing pain, nausea, and diarrhea. He told Sean to come in to the hospital the next morning for a CT scan and a consult with an infectious disease doctor.

Sean returned to the hospital and met with the trauma surgeon. He ordered lab work and a CT scan. Blood work and CT scan were normal, his organs were all healthy. Sean met with the surgeon, infectious disease doctor, and gastroenterologist. They changed some of his medications which helped with the nausea and vomiting some, though the pain persisted. Of course, he was ordered back to normal shifts right out of the hospital with no time to recover or sleep.

For the next month Sean went to sick call, and worked normal shifts in between bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. He grew weaker and weaker, unable to sleep due to abdominal pain. Finally, in mid-June his commander took him to the doctor and insisted that something be done. The doctor said they could do nothing more for him at Anaconda, so they would send him to Germany for an evaluation and then home to the states.

Sean was tired, sick, and broken, but still he asked his commander, “Can’t I come back to finish my duty after I’m treated?” That’s dedication to duty.

Monday, February 25, 2008

It Happens to Everyone Here

Sean returned to the Iraqi theater in the beginning of April 2006. Within a few days of returing, he was sick. Sean very rarely gets sick. When he is sick, he pulls himself together and goes to work. In the 12 years we have been married, he has maybe called in sick 2 times. He gets upset with me when I take a sick day (I have no immune system--I catch everything). So when I say Sean was sick, I mean he was very, very sick. He was vomiting and had diarrhea constantly. He went to see the doctor who told him he was dehydrated. They gave him fluid, prescribed Pepto Bismal, and a clear liquid diet for 72 hours. He was miserable and hungry. I can't imagine the discomfort. Far from home, in the heat of Iraq, no indoor plumbing, just porta-johns. Yuck!

Lots of soldiers get symptoms like these due to poor water supply, improperly prepared food, and changes in eating habits when returing from the states to theater, so this is nothing remarkable. In Sean's case, the doctors guessed that he was getting sick from eating iceburg lettuce. It was the one source that he ate on a daily basis that could have been washed in questionable water.

Sean made multiple trips to sick call in late April and early May as he was rapidly losing weight, and no relief from the diarrhea. The doctor tried Prilosec to see if there was an ulcer, but that did not help. During this time, Sean dropped almost 40 pounds. He continued to work as much as possible. He did not want to let down his unit.

An Aside

Sean plans to give his perspective on his tour in Iraq. It will be added when he is ready. For now, I will continue with the story from my point of view.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

R & R

Sean came home for two weeks R & R at the end of March 2006. Murphy's Law in full effect, there were no flights into Aberdeen. He could either wait two or three days in Kuwait, or fly into a neighboring town. Hmm. . . choice B. Final answer. Sean's flight was scheduled to arrive at 10:30 PM two hours away from home. E and I made the drive in ridiculously thick fog. The entire way there I was dialing 511 to see if there was a change in road conditions or weather. I was certain that the plane would be delayed, or turned around and we would have to wait to see him. I had been planning this day for weeks. What would I wear? Was the work done around the house? Did I stock the fridge and pantry with his favorites? Were things ready at school for my substitute? How much longer would this take?!

Truly a miracle, one mile north of the airport the fog lifted. Not just lifted, but crystal clear count-every-star-in-the-night-sky lifted. We waited in the tiny airport lounge, looking out the windows and searching for a sign of a plane in the sky. When the plane finally landed, the rush of joy and excitement was overwhelming. We watched the passengers climb down the stairs and walk toward the airport. Sean was somewhere in the middle. At first I was intent on each and every person coming toward us. Once I caught sight of him in his ACUs, carry-on in hand, I can't remember much else. I know that E beat me to him. She hugged him for the longest time. It was wonderful and excruciating. I wanted it to be my turn! When he embraced me I melted. I smiled. I cried. We were both shaking.

On the drive home it was hard to keep my eyes off him and focus on the road. I watched him doze and was just so happy to have him next to me. The fog had not lifted in any of the surrounding areas, so we drove home in the same conditions. As it turns out, had Sean been scheduled to fly into Aberdeen, his flight would have been delayed or cancelled.

During Sean's time at home he caught up on some sleep, walked with the dog, cleaned the gutters, visited the FD, and spent time with us. He thoroughly enjoyed having the three kids around and trying to catch up with what was going on in their lives. We took a couple days to ourselves as well. We even found time to attend the annual Home Builder's Show (Sean's idea, not mine). I was in heaven with him at home. It was amazing to lay next to him in bed each night, or sit next to him on the couch and watch a movie. If only it would never end.

Once again we took Sean to the airport and said a tearful goodbye. The security at our tiny airport is pretty strict, so the attendant at the counter took it upon herself to search Sean's military duffel bag (he was in full uniform). In basic training soldiers are taught to fold and roll each item a certain way to insure maximum items will fit in each bag. This woman did not go to basic training. She asked Sean to repack the bag after she had searched it. Sean told her, "You took it all out, you put it back in." Then he went through the security point, removed his boots for inspection, and was trapped behind the windows, just out of my reach. My husband was gone again.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Camp Anaconda, Iraq

Sunrise over the Guard Tower

Palm trees outside the wire

Sean's bunk area

Hootch Sweet Hootch

Working in the ASP

Sean meets Jesse James of Monster Garage

Sean driving the gator

Sean arrived at Camp Anaconda, Iraq in early November 2005. He shared a "hootch" with another soldier. They had trailers set up with three rooms, and two people to a room. Not a bad set-up compared to his previous deployments spent living in tents.

I did my research and found out the dangers of living in this camp. This location is nicknamed "Mortaritaville" for a reason. When we talked, we didn't discuss the dangers. But on the days when no calls or messages came, my imagination ran wild.

The following are excerpts from emails I received while Sean was in Iraq. I will try to get him to add some personal dialogue as well.

November 2005

I have settled in. . . have a bunk and a locker. . . lots of sand here. . . the sand is much worse than flour and gets into and stays in everything. . . I have been working every day now on shift from early morning (still dark) to mid-afternoon so not too bad.

I am not outside the wire in extreme danger although this place feels and acts like a pressure cooker out of control.

December 2005

It is mid 70s and low 80s during the day and in the 50s at night. . . I work in an ammunition company and oversee operations and inspect ammunition to see if it is good or not.

We eat normal food over here. . . same as home sometimes. . . there is a variety: Mexican night, Indian night, cheeseburgers, corndogs, tacos. . .

We have very heavy gear. . . a protective vest and kevlar helmet that together weigh about 100 pounds that we wear a lot of the time. . . we also carry weapons and ammunition with everywhere we go, even when we work out at the gym or shower.

I will be working on Christmas so that the younger troops can be off.

I had my first day off yesterday. . . got some sleep. . . that was good.

Jesse James was in Anaconda doing the last show of Monster Garage forever. They came to the ASP (Ammunition Supply Point) to get some parts for a humvee he is making over. . . if you want to get a glimpse of Anaconda, tape the show. . . I got a picture with Jesse James last night at the education center. He was there emailing home at the same time I was checking my email.

Man is it cold here. It has been in the upper 20s and low 30s at night and half of the morning for the past week. You can see your breath and there was a thick frost the other morning. I'm cold even wearing long underwear, neck gator, stocking cap, gloves, and my fleece coat. Of course it does not help that I shaved my head last night. I told the commander if I wanted South Dakota weather, I would have stayed home with my wife and been warm.

January 2006

Yesterday it rained for most of the night and part of this morning. It was a total downpour. Everything here was very wet and muddy or soupy. Our forklifts just slide around. We had an hour or so of fog and it was as thick as pea soup. . . there is mud everywhere and you slip and slide. . . the mud sticks to everything, shoes, boots, pants, coats, yuck! Well, at least it warms up during the day.

My days off are spent sleeping or catching up on sleep. . . I now automatically wake up at 4:00 AM before my alarm rings and shut it off before I head to the shower in the freezing cold weather. . . but at that time in the morning the water is still hot. . . then to breakfast and work which I don't leave until 1700 at night.

I find myself often counting back nine hours to figure out your time.

June 2006

Two days ago it was 123 degrees. . . yesterday it was 126 degrees and in category black by 11:00 AM. . . today at 12:00 PM it was 121 degrees so it is stifling hot. . . not much appetite lately, but I'm trying to eat. . . also can't sleep but 2 or 3 hours a night. . . we are fairly busy at work. . . last two days feel like a blowdryer on high. . . takes your breath away.

Friday, February 8, 2008

From Kuwait to Iraq

Sean in full Battle Rattle before boarding the plane in Kansas
Camel Herd in Kuwait

50-Man Tent

Sean travelled to Kuwait in mid-October 2005 and arrived at Camp Buerhring.

While in Kuwait, Sean lived with 55 men in 50-man tents. No heat or air. Uncomfortable cots. On base was a tent that housed a gym where they would play volleyball for 2 hours a day and workout. A movie tent ran 24 hours a day as did the internet cafe. Uncomfortable cots, nervousness and anxiety, and missing their families made it difficult for many to sleep, so many soldiers would spend time in the movie tent and internet cafe.

Before the unit could move forward to Iraq, they had to complete a rigorous training routine. The unit participated in had PLS (palletized load system) truck training, forklift training, moving concrete barriers, and pallates of water bottles. They held "Forklift Rodeos" to hone their skills. They loaded vehicles desinated as "excess" to be shipped back to the states. They took a camping trip to weapons ranges to drill on combat ambushes, checkpoints, and close quarter combat training. They slept in large tents and it got brutally cold at night. They encountered their first camel herd on this trip.

The phones were a 20 minute walk from Sean's tent with a 15 minute wait to make a call. Sean called every three to four days. I counted myself very fortunate that my husband would find time to contact me at the end of his busy days. Some wives only heard from their husbands every couple of weeks! Others got messages or phone calls every day. My grandmother told me after seeing a news bit about emailing troops stationed overseas, "When your granpa left for WW II, I didn't get to talk to him for three years!" She thought we were very lucky and very spoiled.

Email was spotty at first, but improved during his stay (in Iraq). Sean would walk 30 minutes to the internet cafe tent on base, wait up to 1 1/2 hours and email me every few days. Internet service was slow and unreliable. There was not always time to read or send messages once he had computer access. Here is a sampling of emails I received from Kuwait.

94 degrees today. . . very bright out. . . needed my sunglasses all day. . . you can relax for a little bit as I am safe for the moment.

There's not anything here but sand and tents. . .

It is warm here during the day 110 or higher.

I am extremely proud of you for taking on the kids at this difficult time in their lives. . . thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I really need to focus because I want to come home safe and I need to bring everyone else home safe.

It has cooled down a bit to high 80s and at night it gets down to 50 or 60 and can be cold. . . I already sent my sleeping bag to our final destination. . .

The food is not bad here and there is a big selection.

I go to bed a 11:00 and get up at 3:30 every morning because I can't sleep. . . it's cold. . . the cot is not comfortable.

Putting Out the Flames

For every homefire you burn, there is a hotspot sure to pop up.
I learned this lesson all too well while trying to manage a home, family, job, and long-distance relationship with my husband.
The short list:
  • bed bugs (they are more than just a cute rhyme at bedtime--a bonus parting gift from the hotel in Denver)
  • exterminator for pesky bed bugs
  • new living room furniture, matress and box spring thanks to pesky bed bugs
  • run-in with a deer on the highway (he ran into me)
  • new doors on the van thanks to renegade deer
  • runaway child (we'll protect privacy here)
  • multiple body piercings (your father won't be happy to see THAT)
  • school attendance problems and failing grades
  • missing car (multiple occasions--had to remove the tires a time or two)
  • influenza A with all of us home for a week
  • my father's brain tumor, removed twice, and triple bypass surgery
  • traveling from family events in horrible weather where I swore I would NEVER drive again once Sean got home
  • traumatic events in my step-daughter's life
  • my step-daughter moved in (a blessing we had long awaited)
  • death of Sean's grandfather
  • flood of May 2006 with inches of water in the basement
  • demolition of the basement due to water damage
  • the flat tire dilemna that plagues us began--I don't know how I can drive over that many nails!
  • math homework meltdowns that required calling a friend for backup
  • 3 teenagers in the house (you can use your imagination here)
  • mysterious hives and canker sores (an entire mouth full)
  • smashed rear window in the car (an incident at the skatepark)
  • leaky ceiling when the snow melted
  • leaky ceiling in the basement when the toilet overflowed

My doctor thinks my headaches are due to stress. Really?

Keeping the Homefires Burning

E and S wait at the airport to welcome home a soldier October 2005
Susie, S, and Melissa after walking in the Gypsy Day Parade October 2005

We moved through our day-to-day life slowly at first, and then gradually making adjustments to our new "normal." The kids had trouble with dad gone, but for their privacy, I'll suffice it to say school was not going well, there was separation anxiety, and they started sleeping in the living room. When Sean deployed to Hungary in support of Operation Joint Guard in Bosnia in 1997, J was 6 and E was 5. While he was gone, during the night they would both end up in bed with me. I woke up like a human sandwich each morning. Sean left for Kansas, and 14 and 13 year olds moved to the living room that night. A little too old to sleep with mom, but still needing to be nearby.

School started, and that occupied most of my time. The routine was very much needed after the rollercoaster summer. It was difficult to go to work most days and face people who cared very much for me, but asked questions that stabbed at my heart. "How long will Sean be gone?" "Have you heard from Sean?" "Do you know where he's going?" "Is there anything I can do?" Sure, you can bring my husband home and we can all go back to our lives. The outpouring was amazing, and I work with an incredible staff, but it was heart-wrenching. Most days I wanted to hide away and not talk about him. I wanted to create this world--the here and now--and that world--the one when Sean called home, or I got an email.

In a way, those two worlds developed on their own. I went to work and about my daily business. Thanks to my teaching partner, Jessica, I spread news about Sean through the lounge without having to share most of it first hand. She made sure people knew what was going on. That was a lifesaver. When I needed to rant and rave and cry, she was there throughout the day. Thank you, Jessica.

I formed close friendships with six wives and their children whose husbands were also deployed with our unit. We were a family. Everyone took care of each other and our children. This is where it was safe to talk about Sean, and share my feelings with people who knew without a doubt what it was like to be alone. To worry about my husband going around the world to a dangerous place. To struggle with children who missed their dads. To complain about the unfairness of it all, without feeling like a whiner. This is where I could let my guard down. We ranged in age from 23-45, had 18 kids aged from 6 months to 25 years old.

I have to say that I think this group, my army family, is what got me through. We called and emailed daily. There were times when no one wanted to be at home, but we didn't know what to do, so we would end up at Wal-Mart, kids in tow, and do our shopping together. Susie and I developed the habit of grocery shopping together as it was a task neither of us wanted to tackle, but when the kids pointed out we were two days without milk, bread (insert staple) it had to be done.

Through the next year we went to the park, swimming, movies, out-of-town trips, emergency rooms, school programs, BMX, baseball and soccer games, and any activity you can think of as a group. If Susie's son had a BMX race, we were there. When K was in the school play, they came to watch. No one wanted to be alone, or at home, so there was always the call, "Meet me at the park." "Meet me at the mall food court." "These kids are driving me crazy, come over for supper."

We planned group trick-or-treating, celebrated birthdays, did our Christmas shopping en masse, had 4th of July cookouts, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's parties. We had an enormous Easter egg hunt (12 of our kids present).

Our FRG took a trip to Denver for an FRG Academy in July 2006. Talk about an amazing trip! I don't remember when we had laughed and had so much fun. Six women, no children, out of town. It was a blessing. Our group was presented with an award for service. Susie won the volunteer of the year award. It was incredible! It was as if leaving town gave us the freedom to relax and enjoy ourselves. Of course, two of the babies at home got sick while we were gone, so there were long distance phone calls from grandmas, to doctors, and pharmacies.

We also ran the FRG fundraisers, planned and hosted the picnic, Christmas party, and various other activities for family members. We made monthly calls to check in with family members. We sent care packages to the soldiers each month. The post office ladies were awesome when we came in laden with boxes. The customers were not as excited when they saw our piles, especially when we shipped 118 small Christmas trees, stockings, and other goodies in 30 + boxes.

My husband still marvels at the depth of our relationships. "How do you know so much about the Commander's wife?" Well, I spent a year with her day-to-day. Basically, she was my "you" while you were gone.

He laughs when the phone calls come in, "Can you pick up my child at day care? I have to work late." "If you're going to the post office, can you stop and send something for me? The kids are sick." "As long as you're going to the dry cleaners, can you pick up my husband's uniform, too?" We are used to doing this for each other, it seems strange NOT to do these things for each other.

There are fewer of us now that the soldiers are home. Many people go back to their previous lives and move on. But for those of us who still get together regularly, there is a part of our families that have been changed permanently. I went to my family gatherings this past year, and I missed my army family with whom I'd spent them the year before.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Welcome to Kansas

Sean and Melissa October 2005
Sean and Eisenhower

J, Sean, and E at the Sunset Zoo

Sean spent two and a half months at Ft. Riley, Kansas preparing for the journey to Iraq. They joked that after a humid August in Kansas, the dry heat of the desert would be a relief (most later recanted on that). He had classes, and field training, weapons qualification, and simulated training for their destination.

We sent him to Kansas thinking that our tough goodbyes were over. We had agreed that if there was the opportunity to come home, or to visit, that we would not take it. The hardest part was over. We had said our goodbyes. Then opportunity knocked.

The kids and I drove 11 hours to Kansas for Labor Day weekend 2005. We were among many families that made the journey. How wonderful it would be to see him again! But the knowledge that we only had a few days made the trip bittersweet for all of us. The drive was awful, mostly in the dark, navigating my way down the interstate, looking for exits, not sure where I was going. The kids were cranky, as was I. And then, it started to rain. About 2 hours north of our destination, the rain started pouring down. It was dark, I was on a two-lane highway, not sure where I was going. And I cried. I bawled. I waited for Sean to call and tell me which hotel we were staying in. I cried when he called. I cried when we hung up. It was as if the reality of it all had just hit me. The kids and I were alone, Sean was leaving, and did I mention it was dark and raining?

We arrived around 11 PM and checked into the most questionable motel I've ever stayed in. Sean was thrilled to be out of the barracks. The kids slept on top of the covers. There was a mysterious sticky substance on the hair dryer. We checked out first thing in the morning and found a new hotel.

J, the quintesential skater, found a skatepark in Junction City. He did his internet research and found, "a skatepark in the middle of a trailer court, next to a gay strip club, and across the street from a sewage pond." All true!!

We also visited Abilene and the home of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Eisenhower Presidential Library, and Museum. We took a driving tour of Ft. Riley. We found a nice park with several memorials to Ft. Riley soldiers. We visited Sunset Zoo in Manhattan.

And the time was wonderful, but it flew by. Before we were ready, it was time to head home. If I thought the trip to Kansas was bad, the trip home was positively miserable. I cried, the kids cried and fought. Sean called to see how we were, and I cried again. It was hard to send him off at the airport, but leaving him behind and driving away, I thought my heart would be ripped out.

Sean stayed at Ft. Riley until the 2nd week of October. The soldiers were granted a 3-day pass, and many rented vehicles and drove home. Sean made it home for J's 15th birthday. We had a bonfire at my dad's. He had the chance to go pheasant hunting with a friend. He napped with the dog. It was wonderful! Then we said goodbye yet again. Now I remember why we had agreed to no visits once he was gone--it was just too damn hard!

Sean left for Iraq mid-October 2005. They travelled to Shannon, Ireland. One soldier discovered how much it costs per minute for an international phone call when they were charged $120 for a 5 minute call home from the airport. Yikes! They went on to Germany, and from there to Kuwait where they would prepare for transition into Iraq.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Let the Chaos Begin

E models her booney hat.
Sean and K at a family briefing.

So the call came in mid-February 2005, and I saw my husband sometime later that year. Seriously, our lives were a blur for months to come. Sean worked full-time at the fire department from February to May, ten 24-hour shifts a month. He also worked 10-12 hour days at the Reserve Center on his "days off" as the mobilization officer preparing everything for the unit to deploy. Of course the military viewed this as the volunteer portion of his service, so there was no compensation for this extra time, except Sean's determination to have things ready. His mission statement was: I'm taking 118 soldiers with me, and I'm bringing 118 home.

At the end of May 2005 Sean put his job at the FD on hold for full-time active duty with the military. This came with 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week, with the exception of the 4th of July holiday where I believe he was home for a record 3 days in a row.

When school ended in May, I joined him at the unit for the summer as assistant Family Readiness Group leader. We made phone trees, phone calls, drove out-of-town soldiers to appointments, provided beverages and snacks, served meals when soldiers were busy with classes, filled out paperwork (would you believe people can get into the army--some of them previously deployed--without a birth certificate?), filled out insurance forms, planned activities, briefings, and send-offs. We collected donations from all around the state, spoke with the media, had fundraisers, and organized with dignitaries' offices for send-off festivities. Occasionally, we saw our children, slept, bought groceries, or saw our husbands. By the end of that summer, dropping the names Susie (our fearless leader) and Melissa got things done! I have to brag that since this deployment, Majors and Colonels have used us as the example for how an FRG should run. Tirelessly, fearlessly, (pay-less-ly), and with a mission to support our soldiers and families.

Our kids, especially E (13) and K (11), worked right along with us. They came to the unit and got to know the soldiers. I think this was a way for them to feel comfortable with where dad was going and who he would be with. They babysat countless hours for Susie's boys, then 6 months and 6 years old. Even J (14) came and sold t-shirts and served pancakes at the fair. Ok, he and his friend slept in the van while the girls served breakfast and then they washed the dishes.

In July we held a briefing to give family members information they would need during deployment. That afternoon, we had a family picnic in 100 + weather. August 6, 2005 we hosted an Activation Ceremony for 118 troops, their friends, families, dignitaries, military personnel, and the public.

On August 7, 2005 at 7:00 AM, Sean and a small advanced party left from the airport. It was a tear-filled morning for all of us. Watching the soldiers pose with families for one last picture. . . seeing them go through check-in. . . past security. . . removing their boots for inspection (I'll never get over the irony of soldiers being inspected for flight). . . one last wave through the glass partition. . . the plane slowly taxiing down the tarmac. . .

And the day continued from there, for we still had 108 soldiers and families at the Reserve Center to prepare for the next day's departure.

August 8th was a gorgeous morning with a bright blue sky. Of course, I overslept and had about 15 minutes from the phone call to wake me up to arrive at the RC. Thanks to an awesome stylist and new short haircut, I was able to make it. We had balloons for the kids, and markers to write messages for their soldiers. The National Guard was on hand to load baggage into trucks and transfer to the airport. Our National Guard had returned six months prior from their Iraqi tour of duty. There were cookies and juice, posters, hugs, more tears, more last-minute photo ops.

Our guest speaker was a former First Sergeant of the unit, who had deployed to Desert Storm with many of these soldiers when they were new recruits. This time, he would send two of his sons to Iraq, and he would stay home with two daughters-in-law, and four granddaughters. There was not a dry eye in the crowd this morning.

The logistics of moving 108 soldiers, gear, weapons, families, friends, and well-wishers through our small local airport was of utmost importance for the security and safety of all. We could not release a flight time, but a general "morning" flight. The terminal cannot handle that many passengers, so we were set to load onto a privately contracted commerical airliner at the old airport terminal. Family members and the rest could be in the parking lot to wave good-bye. Soldiers would be bussed from the RC to the airport. We were given a strict boarding time so as to not mess with the regular flights in and out of the airport.

At precisely 9:00 AM, we gave the announcement to say goodbye and board the busses. Talk about being the least popular kids on the playground! We had sent our husbands off the day before, so we had been through the heartache, but do you think people cut us any slack?

As per military protocol--hurry up and wait. With one bus loaded, we got the phone call, "The plane is on the ground. . . in Minneapolis. Load the busses in one hour." We decided not to make the announcement right then, and instead loaded the busses and moved to the airport. Once there, everyone off the bus, hug your loved ones, say goodbye again, and wait for the plane.

At last the plane arrived, and the soldiers boarded, shouting, "I love you!" and "I'll miss you!" as they went. One soldier took a moment and stuck his head out of the door to shout, "Susie, there is a ton of food left in the kitchen. Can you take care of it?" And of course, we did. The local women's shelter was thrilled with the donation.

And then, we slept.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Call to Duty

Beginning in 2004 our family was aware that the "call" would be coming. Sean worked many extra hours at the US Army Reserve Center, stop-loss was in effect, and local National Guard and Army Reserve units were deploying more frequently. We talked about it a lot, worried, laughed, and told ourselves we were prepared. We told the kids we wouldn't obsess (although I'm pretty sure Sean and I did) but that we knew it was a possiblity and we would deal with it together when and if it happened.

We listened as well-meaning family and friends said, "We are praying Sean doesn't have to go," or "Maybe it won't happen." "I just hope they send the troops home." and knew in our hearts that it doesn't work that way. A soldier is enlisted to serve. Many, like my husband, are proud of that duty. He has to work to remember birthdays or anniversaries, but he can rattle off that enlistment date like nobody's business. I married a soldier. He was a soldier before I ever knew him. But knowing him, I know that this is truly what he believes. He serves because he loves his country, his fellow man, and freedom. You cannot tell a soldier you're sorry he has to go, because the point is, he has to go. It's something inside him. Something that makes him stronger, braver, more determined.

I am disheartened when I hear people complain about soldiers who have gone to war, or say, "he signed up for the education benefits, but not for this." Really? Read the fine print. Somewhere, there is a clause about service to your country in return for those benefits.

So while I was not happy that he would have to go, I did accept that it was a reality. I am so very proud of Sean. Three deployments in 18 years of military service. No complaints on his part. And I know Sean, he would gladly serve again.

But I digress.

The alert came in November of 2004. Nothing much changed at this time as far as our day-to-day, but there were changes in all of us. I worried excessively. The kids began acting out. My son's grades dropped within a week. We celebrated a quiet Christmas at home. Our families were less than thrilled, but thanks to E catching strep throat and sharing it with all of us, no one minded our absence in the end.

February 2005 brought the activation call. We were at home on a Wednesday night getting ready to go to church when the call came. Now, there is supposed to be a call from the unit to the soldier, but instead, we got a call from the commander's wife (he was out of the state at a military conference) asking for Sean. The activation notice had been leaked to the press and she had the media calling her house for confirmation. What a way to get the news that your husband was being deployed! The kids and I went to church and Sean went to the unit to do some damage control and start contacting soldiers. Unfortunately, some soldiers saw the announcement on the six o'clock news before they could be contacted.

How does one sit calmly in church next to her children when this news is so fresh? Remember, we were prepared! Well, we thought we were, but I guess you are never really prepared for when the official message comes. I don't remember much about that night except the phone rang constantly, and we stayed up late with the kids on a school night to watch a movie.

As the saying goes. . . our lives have never been the same.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


This is where I will begin to tell the story of Sean's journey from Iraq to home through illness and unknown territory.