Tense Thanksgiving for Returning Troops

They are daring to hope. As the hours count down, Jodi Velotta and other U.S. Army wives are beginning to think that this time it might really be true—their men are headed home from Iraq.

"It's a lot to know that the day is coming and I didn't wake up to that e-mail saying, 'We've been extended,'" says Jodi, whose husband, Capt. Brad Velotta, commands a company in the 4-23 infantry battalion of the 172nd Stryker Brigade, based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. "I'm like a kid everyday, thinking 'One day closer, one day closer.'"

Brad just called to say he was starting his trip home on Thanksgiving Day. They've had their hopes dashed before, of course—in late July, when the families were told the 172nd would be extended another four months in Baghdad after a year's deployment in Mosul. Jodi has tried to make the waiting more bearable by going on a cleaning binge at her house. "It's kind of like having a baby, I'm nesting," she says. She's also preparing their two kids, Sophia, 3 1â"2, and Hudson, 2, psychologically for Brad's homecoming. "Now everything is about Daddy. Sophia will be in the car and if a boy song comes on the radio she'll say, 'That's my daddy's song,' and if it's a girl song she wants to know if Daddy likes that song. It's all about what Daddy likes."

Tamara Bell has her turkey and all the fixings ready in the freezer—and that's where they will stay until she can share a Thanksgiving meal with her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Edward Bell, when he gets home from Baghdad. "I've tried to have holidays before when he was deployed and it just isn't the same," she says. "There's a real emptiness."

Tamara hasn't seen Edward since the couple's son Nicholas was four days old, and even then, he was just home on a two-week leave from his duty with the 172nd. Last week, Edward called to say he was flying to Kuwait on Thanksgiving Day. They both know—as do all the military families—that their best-laid plans could be upset by the Pentagon's ever-shifting projections for U.S. troop strength in Iraq, and the ever-changing political debate in Washington. But with luck, Tamara is hoping that Edward will be home in time for Nicholas's first birthday on Nov. 30. "We're just both sprinting toward the finish line at this point," says Tamara, who adds that her husband has gone through periods of despondency during the 172nd's 15-month deployment and unplanned extension.

After twelve years as an Army wife, Tamara, 32, knows that reunions, no matter how joyful, can be fraught with tension. "In the very beginning, it's a honeymoon period," she explains. "You are so happy for 1-2 weeks. Everything is beautiful, wonderful, great. That lasts until your first argument, then it's 'Whoa we've changed.' It goes from the silly arguments like how to empty the dishwasher to total changes of how I've changed, how he's changed. Your beliefs, values. You've grown for a year, but not at the same rate. You don't always speak over everything over the phone in 10-15 minutes. You go through lots of changes."

For some of the returning soldiers of the 172nd, those changes may be more than a marriage can bear. After 16 months at home alone with five children, Beth Denton is more weary and skeptical than filled with hope. She's also been frantically cleaning, trying to get the family's four-bedroom home on base as tidy as it was in August 2005 when Staff Sgt. Chad Denton left.

But a lot has changed since then. The couple's youngest son, Noah, was an infant; now he's a rambunctious toddler. The oldest is a teenager who has carried a huge load for her younger siblings, and Beth worries that the 8th grader has fallen in with the wrong crowd at school. Beth predicts Chad will be a much stricter disciplinarian. "I've got a lot of mixed feelings," says Beth. "I'm feeling everything. Scared, nervous, excited, and 'Am I going to know him anymore?'"

The deployment has taken a hard toll on the couple's marriage. With five children ranging in age from 20 months to 13 years, Beth is exhausted, and often feels she is at the breaking point. The only break she had was in October, when her mother-in-law came to help and Beth went to the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage for a few days of "me time," where she could sleep, shop and watch TV without interruption.

But things have gotten so tense that the couple have talked on the phone about whether their marriage will survive, says Beth. "We've had some conversations where we talk about whether we are going to have to start dating again to see if we still know each other," she acknowledges.

At Fort Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, the Army Family Readiness Group (FRG) offers workshops for spouses on what to expect when their husbands return from the war zone. After an initial honeymoon period of a couple of weeks, marital stress is common. And post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a constant worry.

Shortly after the 4-23 was transferred to Baghdad, the unit suffered its first death, Cpl. Alexander Jordan. Chad Denton told his wife that he helped load his comrade's body onto the plane. "It's got to do damage to anybody's mind to be over there that long," says Beth Denton. "He's in denial about the PTSD thing. I'm thinking he has it, by the way he goes on the phone from being really mean and I'm doing everything wrong to 'I love you, honey.' It this is the new him and he's going to stay that way, we have to talk. If this is 'I'm in Iraq, I need to come home, I need to see my kids,' then I can understand."

Dr. Dennis Orthner, an expert military-family stress at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work, says that for many couples, the real impact of these long-term deployments won't be felt right away. That may be why Army figures for recent years show only a small spike in divorce rates, no more than 2 to 3 percent. "Divorce is a process, not an event," he says. "Typically, three years go by between the time a traumatic event occurs, like deployment or the stress of separation, and the actual divorce. Which means many of the divorces will occur after the soldier is discharged."

For some couples whose marriages have been strained, however, the reunion will be an opportunity to make amends. Jodi and Brad Velotta's relationship has gotten testier over the phone in recent months, but Jodi says she has been thinking a lot lately about what she has missed in Brad. "I'm so excited to just get in the car and go to dinner and put my arm over his," she says. "There are all the things I've taken for granted like him opening the car door for me and pulling out my chair—all the things he never stopped doing. Now I appreciate it; I think in my mind I had become a meany—at some time I quit saying, 'Thank you.' Now I will appreciate it so much."

For other family members, it will be enough just to have their loved ones back among them. Brad Velotta's mother, Helen, is looking forward to having all three of her sons back home from Iraq. "I don't look at reports or read the newspaper or listen to the news because if I did, I couldn't function," she says, her voice quivering. "You just want them." Her younger sons, Blake and Tim, both did tours with the Louisiana National Guard in Baghdad and have been home long enough to get back into their lives at school and work. Brad will be the last one and each call brings him closer.

Last week Jodi called Helen to say he'd finished his last patrol. Brad did too, but it wasn't much of a call because of static on the line. "There is no way to describe my relief," Helen says. "I'm very excited but I will more excited when I hear, 'Mom, I'm in Alaska.' That is when I can truly breathe a sign of relief."

This is the latest in NEWSWEEK's series of Web-exclusive reports, "War Stories," about the daily lives of the soldiers and families of the 4-23 infantry battalion of the U.S. Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade. Informed in late July that their yearlong deployment in Iraq would be extended for another four months, the soldiers have been fighting on the front lines of the Battle of Baghdad.