STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Since the start of the war in Iraq, soldiers in the Army's Third Infantry Division have gone away from home twice. The first time, the division raced to Baghdad and was away from home for a year. Then the troops went away for a second year in Iraq. Now, their families are struggling with the soldiers return to life at home, even if they consider the possibility of going back to Iraq again. The Third Infantry is based at Fort Stewart, Georgia. And this morning, NPR's Kathy Lohr has the first of two reports on that base in a nearby town.
KATHY LOHR reporting:
The Army is trying to help families reunited after the latest yearlong absence, offering programs and workshops for soldiers. But the real work of reconnecting is left up to individual families who want to make their relationships successful.
Ms. JANE STETSON(ph): Shhh, get up. The baby is sleeping. Be quiet.
LOHR: Jane Stetson holds her 16-month-old daughter, Jojo(ph), as she plays with a doll on the floor of the Club Stewart ballroom. They're here for a group meeting to help children and parents deal with problems after deployment. Stetson's husband, Sergeant First Class Bart Owen(ph), says when he got back to Georgia so much had changed.
Sergeant 1st Class BART OWEN (Sergeant 1st Class, U.S. Army): I came back home and I didn't know what the rules were. My wife has rules--her own rules, and she doesn't write them down...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STETSON: They might change again.
Sgt. 1st Class OWEN: ...but I was breaking the rules and letting my kids break the rules, because I didn't know that they were the rules.
LOHR: The difficult military lifestyle and a feeling of raising her children alone, led Jane Stetson to get a divorce. But when the couple was apart, she says they talked almost every night on the phone, and remarried a year later. Now, they're compiling a list of rules for their three children.
Ms. KARLA HILLEN (Clinical Social Worker, Fort Stewart): What's number one, rule number one?
Ms. STETSON: And it's not for her. It's for the oldest one. You don't bite, hit, or touch your brother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HILLEN: Okay.
Ms. STETSON: In the mouth, in the (unintelligible).
Ms. HILLEN: So, Bart, do you know any of the other ones? No snacks before dinner, because weren't you getting in trouble for that one?
Sgt. 1st Class OWEN: I would get in trouble for the snacks after dinner.
Ms. HILLEN: Ah.
Sgt. 1st Class OWEN: So no snacks after dinner.
Ms. STETSON: When the kids won't eat, yeah.
Sgt 1st Class OWEN: If they don't eat their dinner, they don't get snacks.
Ms. HILLEN: That's the rule? Yeah. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HILLEN: I try to make the covert overt.
LOHR: Karla Hillen is a clinical social worker and soldier/family life consultant at Fort Stewart.
Ms. HILLEN: What's the undercurrent? You know, is it trust? Is it, you know, is it the mother-in-law? You know, is it the finances? You know, what is it? You know, bringing that specific issue out and just dealing with it. Just, you know, bring it out on the table. And, you know, and teaching them how to communicate.
LOHR: Although Hillen's office is about 20 miles off post, 75 percent of her practice is with military families. She says those who had healthy marriages before deployment usually come back to healthy marriages. The danger is that some expect problems to disappear while they're gone. That doesn't happen. The stress of multiple deployments is beginning to show. Soldiers at Fort Stewart know that they'll be going back to Iraq; they just don't know when. Hillen says that is causing some spouses to withdraw.
Ms. HILLEN: You know, I'm supposed to reconnect with them. We're supposed to reconnect with the family. And he's just going to leave again, anyway. So why should we reconnect? Just go. Go out in the garage and work on your truck. You know, we don't want you around here because we can't count on you. Oh, yeah. That's clearly a frustration.
LOHR: For others, after soldiers come home and the initial honeymoon period has worn off, the situation can be much more troubling. Specialist Larry Long(ph) and his wife, Jackie(ph), meet privately with Hillen.
Ms. HILLEN: So did you know when you married him that he was going to go active?
Ms. JACKIE LONG (Army Wife): I really never thought that I would wind up being married to somebody in the military. Because, for one thing, I don't like being left alone and I know that that was their job.
LOHR: Jackie Long is a bit jittery, constantly tapping her foot. Larry appears uninterested, rarely reacting to anything his wife of nine months says. The couple met at a Golden Corral Steakhouse in Alabama, dated for a short time, and married just three months before he deployed to Iraq.
Specialist LARRY LONG (Specialist, U.S. Army): It seems like she has the Iraqi-itis(ph), like she done went over there and heard bombs go off around her head.
Ms. LONG: Why, because I missed you because you were gone, because I was afraid that something was going to happen to you when you were over there? I have the same kind of mentality every other soldier's wife have when they leave, because you never know. I'm the one that sat back on that field that day up there and had to watch you leave and had to soak in the mentality of okay, that could be the last time I saw your little, natural black behind. You didn't know whether you were coming back or not. You didn't know what you had to endure when you got over there. But nobody seemed to be thinking about that but me.
LOHR: Jackie Long talks about being scared to answer her door for fear that Larry would be one of the dead or injured. Larry questions whether his wife was unfaithful while he was away. She denies it. They're worried about money and the in-laws.
Ms. HILLEN: How motivated are you to keep this marriage going?
LOHR: Karla Hillen, the social worker and family life consultant at Fort Stewart, asks the tough question, one this military husband does not want to answer. The question hangs out there uncomfortably. Can they hold their marriage together with another deployment looming sometime in the next year?
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
INSKEEP: This is the first of two reports. And in the second one, tomorrow, we'll look at how the war in Iraq has affected some businesses near Fort Stewart. By the way, Captain Jeff Townsend(ph) was in Iraq when his daughter, Viola, was born. And you can hear the story of how father and daughter met upon his return by going to our website, NPR.org.