What should you put in a letter to your spouse serving in Iraq? The conventional wisdom, says Janet Mooney of South Charleston, W.Va., is "to put a shiny face on everything we tell them, so the guys feel better--but I don't believe in that." Mooney's theory is that soldiers like her husband, Patrick, a West Virginia state trooper whose National Guard unit called him up in February, "want to feel like they're a part of what's happening here." So along with accounts of their daughter Caitlin's 10th birthday, Janet felt she had to inform Pat about the death of her father and of Pat's grandmother, about the clothes dryer's catching fire and the trip to Cape Cod on which she lost her wedding ring. That way, she says, her husband "feels like he's still included" in the family life he left so abruptly--and Mooney doesn't have to keep it to herself when the basement floods and she slips and breaks two ribs.
Perhaps not every soldier's domestic life has been as eventful as Mooney's over the past nine months. But as a 37-year-old father called out of civilian life to serve an extended tour overseas, he is representative of a fifth of the American troops serving in Iraq. They are members of the Army Reserves or the states' Army National Guard--driving trucks, piloting helicopters or manning checkpoints in the most dangerous place in the world for Americans right now. And as the holidays approach--followed by the first anniversary of their mobilizations--their families are growing increasingly impatient. Until recently, Shumeka Peters's daughter Laila would smile and say "Dada!" when she saw a picture of her father, Jamie, who was called up in February, when she was just 5 months old. Now, though, she throws the picture down and cries "No!"--feeling deserted by someone she hardly had time to know.
The reservists run many of the same risks as the regular troops they support, but they pay a different price. For an active-duty soldier, foreign deployment is an expected risk, and carries benefits in pay and promotions to offset the hardships. But for reservists, this is an unexpected detour in lives and careers whose course had seemed quite predictable just a year ago. For their employers, losing a worker to a call-up can be anything from a nuisance to a potential disaster, in the case of small businesses or professional practices. Dan Mills, a member of the Michigan National Guard who was about to start a vacation with his wife and daughters at Disney World last winter and instead found himself on his way to Iraq with 48 hours' notice, says: "Nobody thinks when they sign up that they'll be going to war."
And few imagined they could be called to serve as long as a year overseas, broken up by (at most) one two-week home leave. Counting time for training, outfitting and demobilizing, this often means as much as 16 months away from home, earning military salaries that may not come close to their civilian pay. And under the Pentagon's "stop-loss" policy, a reservist sent to Iraq must stay on duty until his entire unit is sent home--even if his enlistment expires in the meantime. (Currently, active-duty soldiers can muster out whenever their terms are up.) Two days before she was to leave the Army Reserves in February, with her paperwork all done, Leslie Crawford of Provo, Utah, was ordered into a new unit that was on its way to Iraq--where she still is, according to her sister, Lisa. "She says she feels like a POW of her own country," Lisa says.
It is the perceived disparity of treatment between reservists and active-duty personnel that draws the anger of many families at home. "Why are reservists there for 16 months and some active-duty guys for six months?" demands Candance Robison of Texas, whose husband, Mike, has been away from home since February. Of course, active-duty troops did most of the fighting in the invasion. But there's plenty of danger to go around for reservists, and they're facing it, in some cases, without the same equipment provided to regular units. Joe and Suzanne Werfelman of Sciota, Pa., were shocked to hear from their son, Richard, a 23-year-old law student called up by his military-police unit, that he had been issued a protective vest without the "plates" that stop automatic-rifle rounds. They bought and shipped the plates themselves, at a cost of $660. And as for benefits, both active and reserve troops who put in 20 years are eligible for a pension--but unlike active-duty soldiers, the reservists have to wait until the age of 60 to start collecting it. "I told my wife, I'm investing all this time, I'd do better investing in mutual funds," says Johnny Arias, a 16-year veteran of the New Mexico National Guard who was sent to Iraq in April, and plans to leave as soon as his unit returns home.
Active-duty soldiers live on or near bases, where there are resources for their families and the support of others in the same situation. It's a different matter for someone like Laura Kinslow, 28, who is facing a second winter in the isolated house outside Brookings, S.D., where she said goodbye to her husband, Eric, as he left for Colorado one morning in January en route to Kuwait. Actually, she might have found herself in Kuwait, where her own Guard unit has been deployed--but she was seven months' pregnant at the time, and has since given birth to a son, Toby, whom Eric has never seen.
It isn't just families reservists leave behind, it's jobs. Robison, whose husband is a salesman for a steel company, worries about how long his boss will keep his position open for him. "They're supposed to hold their jobs for five years, but they can let them go if they downsize," she says. "His boss needs someone who can be there." Janet Mooney still goes almost every week to the state-police barracks where Patrick was posted, sorting through court papers on cases that he's trying to keep alive from half a world away. Of the 17 troopers assigned to his unit, four, including Mooney, are serving in the Guard or Reserves. "These call-ups are killing me," says state police Chief Howard Hill, who also had to give up one of his three pilots over the summer. Among the units mobilized was an engineering battalion that specializes in flood control. "If we have a flood in West Virginia now, that unit with all its know-how is gone, and their equipment is gone. They're in Iraq."
The frustrations have given rise to a nascent bring-home-the-troops movement, which is starting to attract attention from the brass. After the wife of a soldier in the 122d Engineers griped to a newspaper reporter last summer, Brig. Gen. Buford Mabry explained the Army's view to a "family readiness group" meeting in Batesburg, S.C.: "We all have freedom of speech, but our soldiers need our support, not complaining." In Kansas, relatives of soldiers in the 129th Transport, which was sent to Iraq in April, set up a Web site, 129bringthemhome.com, and collected more than 13,000 signatures on a petition calling for a one-year limit on Reserves deployments. Eventually a general was sent out from the Pentagon to talk with them, after which they changed the Web site to 129supportingoursoldiers.com. Soon afterward they got a firm date for their spouses' return: June 22, 2004.