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Fri, December 26, 2003

Hard holidays for military spouses abroad
But by networking, they try to make peace with the isolation of war.
By Ken Dilanian
Inquirer Staff Writer

VICENZA, Italy - For Army wives such as Betty Cox, the cozy certainties of civilian life are just an aching, distant wish this Christmas season.

Her husband, Adam, is away and in danger, patrolling the unforgiving streets of Iraq as a sergeant with the 173d Airborne Brigade.

And Cox, of Ambler, Montgomery County, is far from her extended family, on her own with two young children at the Army base in northern Italy. Adam has been gone for 12 of the 18 months the Coxes have been based here.

"We haven't spent a holiday together this year, including birthdays and our anniversary," Cox said the other day after mailing a portable heater to her husband in Kirkuk. "It does bother me."

As most Americans gather with relatives this week, Cox is among tens of thousands of military family members spending the holidays away from their spouses or parents, many of whom are at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And she's part of a smaller group of U.S. military spouses who live abroad in countries where they do not speak the language. A housing shortage at the Vicenza installation means most families live off-post, spread out in 49 Italian towns.

The sense of isolation can be profound. But, as a group of paratroopers' wives who were gathered in the Family Assistance Center explained recently, it is not all doom and gloom. They told of building friendships by looking after one another, and of learning things about themselves. And they expressed pride in what amounts to their unsung brand of public service.

"I think these women are real heroes," said Susan Turner, the wife of Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner, who commands the U.S. Southern European Task Force, which includes the 173d Airborne. "They're serving their country, too."

But none of them expected the separation and the gnawing worry to go on for so long.

The 173d is a quick-reaction force not designed for long deployments. So when the brigade parachuted into northern Iraq a week after the war began in March, families thought the troops would be home in a few months.

Even that was excruciating, given the veil of secrecy that shrouded the mission. The men were "locked down," for a few days before the jump, meaning they had to say goodbye to loved ones and leave behind their cell phones. Several days later, family members watched part of the operation live on CNN.

'Very religious'

It was six weeks before the soldiers could call home, and it took about as long to set up mail service. In these days of e-mail, though, communication soon became as regular as it ever has been in wartime, which helped blunt the sting of the news that soldiers in Iraq would serve there for a year.

The 173d wives know they are lucky because the brigade's area of operations, in and around Kirkuk, has been among the safest places in the country for U.S. troops. Still, ambushes and roadside bombings have increased in recent months, and at least six 173d soldiers have been killed.

"Some days you are just sitting there saying, 'God, please don't take my man,' " said Bethanie Trent, 28, whose husband, Gregory, is a sergeant. "You become very religious during a deployment."

Trent, of Bethlehem, Pa., recently gave birth to a daughter. Her pregnancy was difficult, so her husband was sent home temporarily.

"He cried when she was born," she said. "I know he's missing her smile and her laugh."

He also missed the day, a month before the birth, when a flood swept through their house and destroyed half their possessions.

"I sat on my front porch and just lost it," Trent said. "But you know, I have an incredible support network here. Friends helped me clean it up, and I moved on."

'My soul mate'

Shand Mayville, 41, is the wife of the brigade commander, Col. William Mayville. Her father graduated from West Point and her oldest son just entered there, so she knows what is expected of a military family. Yet, she said, she was not sure she could cope.

"I have known Bill since I was 19," she said. "He is my best friend, my soul mate. So when he left... I think I would have liked to have crawled in my bed and just stayed there until it was all over. But my kids needed to see their friends and graduate from high school and go off to college - they needed to move on. It was hard to get a balance going, but we finally did."

She added: "The hardest thing for me has been for my son to graduate from high school and go off to college and his dad not be there."

Anita Petit, 39, is married to Maj. Kevin Petit, who has been gone longer than most because he helped plan the jump. She said she had grown from the experience of being a single mother to her children, ages 7, 4, 2 and 1.

"I'm having to fix the house, I'm having to fix the car, and do things that I wasn't prepared for. I know I should have been, but I just depended on my husband so much," she said. "So it's been a good learning experience. It's made me more independent."

To many Army families, Vicenza is a plum posting, given its proximity to the Alps, the sea, and Verona and Venice. But living in Italy can be a challenge, particularly for young people who had never traveled abroad.

"It's 2 a.m., you've got a sick baby, you don't speak Italian, and you have to get up in the middle of the night and get to the Italian hospital because we don't have a hospital," Turner said. "That's the type of thing that happens all the time."

Holidays can be especially tough. Individual companies and battalions have hosted parties this week, and the post chapel scheduled Christmas Eve and Christmas services. But there is only so much the Army can do to fill the hole left by absent loved ones.

Some 173d soldiers have returned with shattering injuries. Some have come back in body bags. And some spouses have filed for divorce, never having bargained for a yearlong separation. There is talk around post that, when the Iraq deployment ends, the Army will see an exodus of soldiers.

Patti George hopes not. She met her husband, deputy brigade commander Randy George, when they attended West Point together. They also served in Desert Storm together.

"I think it's worth it for my kids," said George, who is a civilian these days. "Because what he's doing there, maybe the problems will be resolved enough that if [my son] decided to be in the military, they won't have to go and straighten things out again. I'm willing to give this to our family."

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