U.S. Families Forced To Adjust To Women Going Off To War

Army reservist Jane Grimes took care of combat casualties in Iraq. But she had a second front to deal with back home: her teenage son said he'd never forgive her for leaving him alone. It's different when it's a mother that goes to war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

War has always affected the families of the men who fight them, during the conflict and then during the transition home. In the 1940s, here's how that transition was represented in the classic movie "The Best Years of Our Lives."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) You wrote me that when you got home you and I were going to be married.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Yes, but things are different now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So you changed your mind?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Have I said anything about changing my mind?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No. That's just it - you haven't said anything about anything.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Great movie. The modern version of that story often has the roles flipped with a young woman coming home from war. Women now face the same problems as men - injury, post-traumatic stress, a tough time returning to civilian life.

MONTAGNE: And American society is adjusting to the idea of a wife or a mother coming home from battle. In the second part of our series about female combat veterans, NPR's Quil Lawrence visits a family where a husband is the one who stays home and a mother goes off to war.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: A party at Jane Grimes'(ph) house outside Fort Worth means all the enchiladas you can eat, Coors Light, and real Texas hospitality.

STAFF SERGEANT JANE GRIMES: Hi. Come on in. This is my mom.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi.

GRIMES: My daughter Lindsay.

DALE GRIMES: My name is Dale Rimes. I'm the husband of Jane Grimes.

LAWRENCE: Jane dated Dale back in high school, then they went their separate ways - each had families. A few years ago, they got back together. The pictures in their front hall show them now but also 20 years ago. Jane had the same curls and dimples; Dale had a classic 1980s mullet.

GRIMES: She asked me to dance, and we dated a while and then we just kind of went our own ways. And then come back into town and - I'm 48 - 20 years later here we are.

LAWRENCE: It's going great, he says, though there's the occasional role reversal. It can come up with something small, like when people see Jane's U.S. Army jacket and then thank Dale for his service.

GRIMES: I go no, it's my wife. We've got that so much, all the time. But I always tell them that she is, that's the one.

GRIMES: It's not acceptable for a woman to go. It's acceptable for men to go because they're men. My mom's not supposed to go do this stuff.

LAWRENCE: But Jane is doing it. She's been in the Army Reserves for years. She says Dale handles it pretty well but he's not wild about being called an Army husband, and Jane knows he's not wild about her staff sergeant look either.

GRIMES: I don't know why you have to look like a guy all the time. Well, that's because they make all our clothes to fit men. I can't help that. You know, I have to have my hair up. I can't wear jewelry.

LAWRENCE: Before she married Dale, she got called up in 2007 and deployed to Iraq. It wasn't a combat arms job, but the base she was assigned to got mortared a dozen times a day, and she saw up close the cost of combat.

GRIMES: I was embedded in an ER at a combat hospital - the 332 EMDG in Balad, Iraq.

LAWRENCE: Jane worked as a casualty liaison. She would follow the wounded from the moment they choppered into the hospital, taking careful notes.

GRIMES: You write all that down because a family member wants to know everything.

LAWRENCE: Jane would take the details, the wound, the diagnosis from the doctor, and pull it all together to be sent to the families back home - good news and bad.

GRIMES: I'm a mom. Those kids are my - my son's age. And if you have the soldiers that are going to survive, we just try to sit with them, because if it was my husband or my daughter or my kids, I would want to know that somebody did that for them if I couldn't be there.

LAWRENCE: War took a toll on Jane as she tended to so many wounded young soldiers. Meanwhile, she had a whole second front open up back home. Her sons Tory and Michael were 18 and 15. Michael was having trouble at school and he blamed his mom.

GRIMES: I'm 5,000 miles away. I'm trying to stay alive. I'm trying to take care of these people and then I have a son back home that is hating my guts because I left him. I mean it just hurt me to the core. You have no idea. He just told me over and over again I'm not going to forgive you for leaving me.

LAWRENCE: Jane Grimes was a single parent when she deployed back in 2007, just like tens of thousands of other single moms who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army requires a formal plan - the name of a legal guardian to care for your kids while you're gone. Jane's plan was for a family friend to move in with the boys, but Michael, the younger son, was too much to handle. Her sister took over until Jane came home.

GRIMES: There was the drugs and the alcohol. And when I came back, he was so mad for so long. He was just yelling all the time. And he was angry with me for like two years after I came back.

MICHAEL: First, I was angry when she got back. A lot of yelling.

LAWRENCE: That's Michael. He's 21 now. He says he did feel betrayed but now he's sorry for making his mom's deployment so hard.

MICHAEL: (Unintelligible) time. Just time, that's it. But now I'm more mature about it.

LAWRENCE: Life is back on track now. Jane is married and both the boys get along with Dale. They've got jobs. Her oldest son Tory just had a baby daughter. Jane loves being grandma.

GRIMES: You want to get something to drink?

LAWRENCE: But here's the thing. Jane's unit got called up again.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get everybody's attention for a second?

LAWRENCE: The party at their house, it was a going away party the night before she left for Afghanistan. A family friend said grace.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We just want you to be there for her in her journey and bring her home safe to us...

LAWRENCE: She's doing a different job this deployment - a helicopter mail run - which will mean lots of time outside the base. Jane says her kids are behind her this time. Tory, her older son, admits this time he's worried.

TORY: Definitely a lot harder than the first time she left. We're really close now too since I had my daughter. I see my mom almost every day, so it's going to be a change. I don't know anybody else that's five-foot tall that could do stuff that she could do.

LAWRENCE: What's her husband think about all this? Talk to Dale and Jane separately and you get the sense that these are totally unchartered waters.

GRIMES: I've been married for two years. So this is my husband's first deployment.

GRIMES: She's made it hard on me doing this, but that's OK.

GRIMES: He's dealing with it OK. He's a guy. He's not really going to say too much.

GRIMES: You see a guy over there and you think, OK, he's a good tough guy. He can handle it. But you see a woman go over there, especially your wife, and you're going, man, I can't protect her if she's there.

GRIMES: He would never ever admit that it's bothering him, that I'm leaving and he's not leaving. This is what I chose.

GRIMES: It's hard but she's tough. She's a tough woman.

GRIMES: I'm not in his shoes. I'm not the person being left behind. And it's always harder for the family than it is for the soldier. That's the hardest thing, is to have to wait.

LAWRENCE: Staff Sergeant Jane Grimes will spend most of this year based in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She's a mom, a sister, a mother, a wife. I just want you to bless her, bless the food, bring her home safe. In God's name we pray. Amen.

GROUP: Amen.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Next in our series, women who've served in the military face a much higher risk of rape or sexual assault than women in civilian life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You don't have to worry about the enemy. You have to worry about your own soldiers around you. I mean that's the worst part about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: That's not good.

MONTAGNE: That story tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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