A wide gulf

Their loved ones in Iraq, Missouri families mark milestones with videotape, live for phone calls — and learn to wait
Sunday, September 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:06 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Wendy Malmberg had been looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with her husband, an Army reservist serving in Iraq.

1st Lt. Jay Malmberg with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command has been separated from his family since last December.

The Malmbergs have a 2 1/2-year-old son, Cooper, who had just started walking when Jay was deployed. Wendy said Cooper has started to run, climb and talk during Jay’s nine-month absence. She has only been able to share these moments with her husband through pictures and videos she mails.

Wendy had been expecting Jay to be in the United States by October and home on leave by November.

But after the Army’s recent announcement that Army Reserve and National Guard troops stationed in Iraq will likely have to serve a full year, she will have to prepare herself an empty chair at the table during the holidays.

Learning to cope

Many families of troops are learning what it means to function as single-parent households. Most reservists are earning significantly less for their military service than they were in their civilian jobs.

The law requires employers to keep reservists’ jobs open for them and includes provisions that can lower interest rates on mortgage payments and credit-card debt. Nevertheless, a reduced income over a period of a year can burden a family already shouldering unaccustomed roles and the emotional strain of not knowing the fate of a loved one at war.

It was DeAnna Bryan’s job to contact approximately 40 families and give the news about the one-year directive. Bryan leads a group in Jefferson City for relatives of the 1221st Transportation Company, a National Guard Unit.

“All of them were disappointed,” she said. “We were so hoping for Christmas.”

The directive could affect about 20,000 troops nationally. About 1,300 National Guard soldiers from Missouri are stationed in Iraq and Kuwait, while 1,500 Army reservists could have their tours extended to a full year.

2nd Lt. Jamie Melchert, a spokesman for the Missouri National Guard, explained that typically, National Guard and reserve units serve a six-month tour but that they know when they sign up they could be deployed for up to two years.

Melchert emphasized that the new directive only applies to soldiers who are already in Iraq or Kuwait. For those soldiers, the weeks or months they spent at mobilization stations such as Fort Leonard Wood before they arrived in the region are not included in the new one-year term of their mission.

The reality is that many soldiers will be away from their families for up to 16 months, Melchert said.

A link back home

Julie Andrews, of Holts Summit, has been taking care of her two young daughters since their father, Shannon, a National Guard soldier serving with the 1221st Transportation Company, left for Iraq three months ago.

A year is a long time in the lives of her daughters, ages 3 and 7. To keep the memory of their father alive for them, Andrews has made a paper chain. Each link on the chain stands for one day of Shannon’s one-year mission. The final link is attached to a sticker that reads “June 24,” the date that Andrews expects her husband home. She sits down with her daughters every night before bed to remove a link from the chain and to talk about their father.

“My hat’s off to every single parent in the U.S. and elsewhere,” she said.

Family Assistance Centers set up during Operation Desert Storm have reopened their doors in seven locations throughout the state to help families deal with the prolonged absence of a parent, child or spouse. Mike McGuire coordinates programs for the state’s Family Assistance Centers. Some of the work he does involves solving practical problems like helping with an Army pay check that’s gone astray or finding a volunteer to repair a leaking roof.

The other part of his job involves helping families cope with the emotional strain. Organized picnics bring families together to share their worries, and video teleconferences between soldiers and their families help boost morale on both sides, McGuire said. The center also trains volunteers to run local support groups that meet regularly to vent their concerns and exchange information.

Bryan, who leads the group for relatives of the 1221st company, is a full-time student at Lincoln University and mother of two teenage daughters. Her oldest daughter will soon be ready to drive. Bryan had always assumed that her husband, Gilbert, would be the one to teach her, but she now realizes that she will have to fill that role.

“They’re looking forward to things,” she said, “and I can’t postpone them until he gets back.”

Calling out to loved ones

Phone calls are the lifelines between soldiers and their families. Andrews runs a children’s day care out of her home but forwards calls to her cell phone whenever she goes out in case her husband should call.

“You just live for the phone calls,” Andrews said. She also relies on the phone to stay in touch with other members of the support group between meetings. While everyone in the group has family in the same unit, at different times some may be in Kuwait and close to a phone or computer while others are serving missions in Iraq, where communication is often impossible. Members of the group swap information whenever possible.

Bryan just heard from her husband for the first time in two weeks. She tries to avoid watching the news, but knowing her husband was out on a mission, she had a hard time tearing herself away. Gilbert’s convoy was ambushed on one trip to Iraq. He was shot at and his truck set on fire. Bryan said the reality of his close call didn’t hit her until Gilbert sent a picture of the gutted remains of the truck.

Gilbert has been in the National Guard for all 16 years of their marriage but this is the first time he’s been called up. He was excited to finally be able to use his training to help his country, Bryan said. While he hasn’t lost any of that dedication, he’s homesick and frustrated, a side of him Bryan said she’s not used to.

When he does manage to call, she’s just happy to hear his voice, even through the crackle of a bad connection. “There’s safety in his voice,” she said.

Wendy Malmberg will spend the holiday season with her parents in Columbia. It will be the second Christmas she and her son have spent without her husband. She said she knew when she married Jay five years ago that he could be called up for active duty at any time, but she didn’t give it much thought. Jay had already been in the Missouri National Guard for several years before they met. After he graduated from MU in 1998, he joined the Army Reserve.

“You put it in the back of your mind,” Malmberg said.

That changed the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Wendy was taking Cooper for his six-month check up and Jay was in Washington, D.C., completing his annual two weeks of Reserve training. His unit was put on immediate notice.

As part of the Civil Affairs Command working to restore Baghdad’s infrastructure, Wendy knows that Jay’s unit is vulnerable to ambush.

“Every time you hear the news and a soldier has been killed, you hold your breath,” Wendy said.

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