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Patrick McCarron joined the Virginia National Guard in the wake of 9/11, says his wife Inna, because "it just shook him so much. He wanted to do something." So Mr. McCarron, who worked in maintenance at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., spent the next few years as a "weekend warrior." They knew he could be shipped overseas but, like many Guard and Reserve recruits, "thought it would be a more local-type thing," she says, probably helping with homeland security.
They were mistaken. Sgt. McCarron of the 116th Infantry unit was activated in March, 2004. For Mrs. McCarron it was a terrible shock: "I just wanted to cry." She was newly pregnant, had four kids, and had just learned how to drive (they met in her native Kazakhstan 12 years ago). He left for Afghanistan in July, leaving behind Inna, Michael, 2, Dorothy, 5, and twins Alex and Claudia, 7. Aileen was born several weeks later.
Mrs. McCarron is proud of her husband, but the separation is difficult despite frequent phone calls. She laughs often, but it seems like a way to fight off tears. Two soldiers from his unit were killed in September. She doesn't watch the news and she doesn't count the days. "It's too hard to count the days," she says, in the living room of her modest West Virginia home. "I concentrate on what my kids need and try not to think about bad things."
Overseas deployment is seldom easy, but active-duty soldiers expect it and their families often live on bases, where there is a built-in support network. For the families of many reservists now in Iraq and Afghanistan, overseas deployment can be especially trying. National Guard and Reserve officials have a variety of programs to help ease the strain, and a group led by a Baptist pastor in Virginia is about to release a new manual aimed at helping pastors and churches minister to military families, but the well-being of reservist families will continue to be a major concern.
It's an important issue for reasons that go beyond the military's duty to look after its people. At House Armed Services Committee hearings in February, Pentagon officials said that mobilizing enough soldiers from already stretched Guard and Reserve units to staff the next rotation in Iraq will be a "challenge." Currently just under half of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are reservists (although the Pentagon plans to reduce that number this year). Recruiting goals in several branches of the military are not being met, and if the families are unhappy, recruitment and retention becomes that much harder.
Moreover, soldiers distracted by personal problems are less effective. "The bottom line [for family support programs] is to make sure that a Joe sitting in his foxhole in Iraq doesn't have to worry about his family," says Capt. Colin Noyes, who runs the Virginia National Guard's Family Assistance Center program.
There can be a lot to worry about. As soon as a spouse is deployed, goes the saying, "Everything breaks, everything leaks, everything quits working." For some spouses, just getting a car or plumbing repaired can be stressful, never mind handling the family finances or rearing children alone.
For about a quarter of reservist families, activation means a pay cut. Kay Baber, the State Volunteer Coordinator for the Virginia National Guard, reports that separation pay and tax breaks augment soldiers' salaries and some major employers make up lost wages so that about half of reservist families keep the same income. The remaining families actually earn a little more money on active duty.
The most serious issues usually involve spousal relationships and children. Separation alone can affect marriages; sending one spouse into a war zone, from which news media send back daily reports of American soldiers killed or wounded, makes it even more stressful for all military families even though the vast majority return home safely.
Chrissy Pilley's husband Casey, a sergeant in the 401st Army Division, escorts convoys in Iraq. Sometimes he's out of touch for a week or so and the hardest thing, she says from her home in Ft. Hood, Texas, is "not knowing what's going on, what kind of mission it is until it's over." Johnny Almond, a retired Air Force chaplain who now pastors the Colonial Beach (Va.) Baptist Church, says that some spouses can't help but treat deployment like a funeral. "It was like he died," one wife told him.
Chaplains and others who work with military families say some children become angry and frustrated when a parent is deployed and it shows up at school, or even in eating disorders or nightmares. When the father is gone, Mrs. Baber says, boys ages 10-15 will sometimes burden themselves feeling that they need to be the "man of the house."
The stress doesn't end when the rotation is over. Chaplain Timothy Baer of the Virginia National Guard says that the returning spouse has to learn to fit into a household that has learned to operate without him or her. On the other hand, Chaplain Baer says, sometimes the stateside spouse, tired and frustrated after coping alone for months, hands over a box of family responsibilities as soon as the reservist walks in the door. "They say, 'Here honey,' and the spouse is saying, 'Wait a minute, I haven't even got my civilian shoes on yet.'" The families of Guard and Reserve troops can feel these stresses all the more acutely because, unlike living on a base, they are not surrounded by families all going through the same things.
Aware of the problem, the Virginia National Guard has a series of programs to help families cope. Chaplain Baer is in charge of stress debriefings, counseling, and marriage workshops for returning National Guard soldiers, among other services. The Virginia National Guard has also established 26 Family Assistance Centers, spread all over the state, that either refer callers to the appropriate military resource or connect them to community groups like The American Legion. Around 6,000 military family members have called for help with everything from health insurance forms to short-term loans to shoveling snow. Family Readiness Groups, common to all branches of the military, get together for social events, raise money to help member families, and provide a connection for families feeling lost or isolated.
One advantage families of Reserve troops do have, Chaplain Baer points out, is that "the family stays rooted while the dad is gone." Family, friends, and churches are still nearby, providing an "authentic" support system. Mrs. McCarron's parents-in-law, for example, drop by at least once weekly to baby-sit while she goes shopping. After a snow in January, she looked outside and saw neighbors shoveling her driveway. At Christmas members of her church, Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian in Purcellville, set up her tree and dropped off toys, and the Family Readiness Group dropped off gift certificates to Wal-Mart and the local grocery store. Church families take turns bringing her Sunday dinner to take home after service and writing letters to Sgt. McCarron.
But Mrs. McCarron's situation is unusual, says Pastor Almond, who also ministers part-time to the military with the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. "We have found people crying out for help," he says. To help churches (and other organizations) reach out to military families, he pulled together a committee of 14 military chaplains and Guard and Reserve officials to write a manual describing the various resources available to military families and suggesting ways to be helpful. The manual, due out this month, is not evangelistic, he says, in that clergy from any religion would find it useful He'll provide it free to any who ask. "We think it's going to plant a lot of seeds," he says.
-with reporting by Daniel Archer
Ten ways to reach out
Pastor Johnny Almond says that what churches do is not as important as showing that they care about the families of deployed soldiers. It should go beyond posting a picture on a bulletin board. "Befriend them. I can't think of anything more important," he says. "Someone needs to be a neighbor. They're hurting more than most people realize." Among his suggestions:
· Develop a core of people committed to ministering to military families.
· Provide Bible study groups taught by people with military backgrounds.
· Be available in times of crisis, from illness to money issues.
· Provide meeting spaces for Family Readiness Groups or other support organizations.
· Send care packages to deployed soldiers.
· Provide counseling for spouses and dependents.
· Offer to "check up" on spouses and dependents.
· Provide "handyman" support for yard, home, and car repairs.
· Offer financial management seminars.
· Be hospitable.