Guard Families Seek to Close Gap Left by Iraq
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
The Minnesota National Guard's 1st Combat Brigade recently returned from some tough duty in Iraq. They served there for 22 months - four months longer than normal after the Pentagon extended their tour. And that's has had a huge impact on the families left behind.
Last spring, NPR's John McChesney drove across Minnesota to see how the soldiers' loved ones were coping. This morning he visits them again and he tells us the families are just adjusting even after the troops have come home.
JOHN McCHESNEY: We started in St. Paul with the family of Daisy and Ron-Michael Pellant. We had visited Daisy and the four kids back in March right after the extension was announced. Snow was on the ground then and a remodel of their bungalow had been put on hold. It's 4:00 in the afternoon and Daisy rushes in from daycare with two-year-old Lucy.
Ms. DAISY PELLANT (Military Wife): I don't know what condition her diaper's in, but it's all yours.
Mr. RON MICHAEL PELLANT (Chief Warrant Officer, Minnesota National Guard 1st Combat Brigade): You know, she always says 22 months, 22 months. Oh, Lucy needs her diaper changed. Hmm, 22 months.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PELLANT: Twenty-two months, just to remind him.
McCHESNEY: Like the other soldiers we visited, Ron-Michael - or RM, as he's known - joined the National Guard in college in the 1980s and had no idea he would ever be deployed for 22 months - neither did his wife Daisy.
Mr. PELLANT: But she didn't volunteer for that. You know, there's that whole spousal side of it where they didn't know they were getting into this.
Mr. PELLANT: You know, I ditched her with four kids after one was born. Two weeks after Lucy was born I'm gone. It's like, okay, you take care and I'll e-mail you.
McCHESNEY: The Pellants say they are adjusting fairly well after RM's long absence. But there have been a few rough patches with the kids, especially Ruby, who is nine.
Ms. RUBY PELLANT (Daughter): My dad, when he came home, it was like a couple of weeks until I've realized that he was making jokes that really bothered me. Like making a joke, teasing, but then it really hurts a person's feelings.
Mr. PELLANT: I made jokes at the wrong time, didn't I?
Ms. PELLANT: Really wrong time.
Mr. PELLANT: And I had to learn that. You know, sometimes you just can't tell jokes when somebody's trying to be serious.
Ms. PELLANT: He's much better at it now.
Mr. PELLANT: Thank you. I've been working at it extremely hard.
McCHESNEY: Daisy Pellant is working on a PhD in developmental psychology and found out that RM would be deployed nine hours before she had to face her oral exams.
Ms. PELLANT: After he left, there were times when I felt angry and I had to deal very directly with just feeling angry for being dumped with this humungous load and for something we didn't even believe in. That was hard.
McCHESNEY: From St. Paul, we drove north for an hour to the tiny town of Princeton, where Linda Anderson and First Sergeant Randy Hatch live in a country home. When we were here in March, Linda was bitter about the four-month extension. She still is.
Ms. LINDA ANDERSON (Military Wife): March 18th was when he was coming home. I'm going to pick him up at the airport on March 18th. I knew that. And when that vaporized in front of me, it became very difficult to really care about much.
McCHESNEY: Linda says she stopped sending pictures and her e-mails became perfunctory. The extension had a deadening effect on their relationship.
Ms. ANDERSON: This was hellish in a way that I could never have anticipated.
McCHESNEY: But she says their 20 years of marriage has provided a foundation to build on.
Ms. ANDERSON: And you can burn the house down, but you still got the basement. I mean, there's still the blocks there. Well, the house got burned down. So now I feel like we're rebuilding the house.
First Sergeant RANDY HATCH (U.S. Soldier): I needed to learn to devote my energy to Linda, and we had some pretty frank discussions right off the get-go when I got home.
McCHESNEY: Patch says he's pretty hopeful about their relationship. But he says he's having to learning his job as a water treatment engineer all over again.
From Princeton, we drove southwest across the state to the lower corner near Iowa and South Dakota. Last time we were here, it was bitter cold and patches of snow dotted the black soil. Now an endless golden sea of corn ripples in the wind, awaiting the combine.
Jody and Don Kramer live literally across the street from Iowa. Three of the six Kramer kids roar up into the front yard on an ATV.
Unidentified Child: (Unintelligible) wants to know if on our way back he can drive.
Mr. DON KRAMER (Minnesota National Guard 1st Combat Brigade): I don't care. Yes, he can drive.
McCHESNEY: The kids then tear off down the country road.
Ms. JODY KRAMER (Military Wife): Are they supposed to be driving on the road? Can't they go...
Mr. KRAMER: (Unintelligible) the road.
Ms. KRAMER: All right. I don't agree with that.
Mr. KRAMER: It's a small road.
McCHESNEY: A tiny parental disagreement, but perhaps indicative of deeper issues. Don is a captain in the Guard. While he was gone, Jody held down her CPA business, took care of six kids, and with some help also ran the farm. She was in charged here and Don was in command in Iraq.
Ms. KRAMER: I seem to get pretty angry pretty fast. I don't give him a lot of room. But I'm used to doing it this way and in this order and sometimes he discombobulates that a bit.
Mr. KRAMER: I'm not used to discussing things before I want to decide something, so that's something I got get used to again.
McCHESNEY: He wasn't used to it when he first got home and went looking for his caulking gun. Jody had reorganized his tools while he was away.
Ms. KRAMER: And he came home and announced that - how - how - how good is that? I mean, if want to drive to the field, I got to load 10 boxes in the back of my truck. I need a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Not all of it. So I threw up my hands and said, fine, do your own thing. Just get them out of my garage - your garage, our garage.
McCHESNEY: These couples believe that they can work through the issues created by such a long deployment, but for Sergeant Carlston Bachlin(ph) it's too late.
I first met him in Iraq last January. He told me then he was having trouble keeping his home security business afloat during the long deployment. But he didn't mention he was going through a divorce. He talked with us in St. Paul at a conference organized by the Minnesota Guard to help soldiers readjust.
Sergeant CARLSTON BACHLIN (Minnesota National Guard 1st Combat Brigade): I have lots of, I don't know, I don't want to say hatred, but I'm very disappointed and hurt about how it all happened, because I was gone. She was able to move on, do what she needed to do, meet new people, start a new life and everything, and I had to put mine on pause. So it's been really hard to sit in the house all by yourself again.
McCHESNEY: Bachlin has a three-year-old daughter.
Sgt. BACHLIN: Now it's a I don't want to be with you and that's really tough to deal with when they cry for 30, 45 minutes, saying I don't want to be with you.
McCHESNEY: Chaplin John Morris of the Minnesota National Guard has been monitoring the condition of the state's Guard families.
Major Chaplin JOHN MORRIS (Minnesota National Guard 1st Combat Brigade): When people say there's not a draft, that's wrong. There is a draft. I volunteered. My family got drafted. And the sad reality is we are crushing families.
John McChesney, NPR News.
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