Minn. Military Families Cope With Long Deployment Families react to the recent redeployment of the Minnesota National Guard. Come July, they will have been deployed for a total of 22 months, the longest brigade level deployment in the history of the National Guard.
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Minn. Military Families Cope With Long Deployment

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Minn. Military Families Cope With Long Deployment

Minn. Military Families Cope With Long Deployment

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Minnesota, some military families are getting very anxious for a homecoming with their loved ones. Twenty-six hundred soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard recently learned they'll be spending an extra four months in Iraq. That extension will push these Guardsmen into record territory for time served in the war.

NPR's John McChesney visited some families who have a member serving with this group now. As he reports, some are having a hard time coping with the delay.

JOHN McCHESNEY: If they hadn't been extended, the Minnesota soldiers would most likely have been with their families this week. In the end, they will have been deployed for a total of 22 months - the longest brigade level deployment in the history of the National Guard.

We began our visits at the St. Paul home of Daisy and Ron Michael Pellont(ph) at 6:30 in the morning.

Ms. DAISY PELLONT(ph): So can you put your shirt on and start getting yourself ready?

Unidentified Child: My shirt's not up here.

Ms. PELLONT: Can you go downstairs and get it? And while you're down there, could you get your sister some socks?

McCHESNEY: Daisy begins the daunting task of organizing four kids for school and preschool. It's not long before 18-month-old Lucy melts down.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Ms. PELLONT: Sorry. I'm sorry, Lucy. Lucy, aren't you going to do your job?

(Soundbite of baby crying)

McCHESNEY: When her husband Ron Michael was deployed, they were in the middle of a remodel of their Craftsman house. So with construction work underway, Daisy and all the kids now sleep in one tiny room with mattresses on the floor. In the cramped little kitchen, as Max, 7, works on a bowl of cereal, I asked Daisy whether she feels any bitterness about the unequal sacrifice she and her husband are making for this war.

Ms. PELLONT: The only time I find myself either biting my tongue or actually not biting my tongue is when I'm when with people who are young, able-bodied people who voted for this administration, who supported the war, and who continue to support this and who did not step up, who did not sign up.

McCHESNEY: Nine-year-old Ruby, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes, struggles with her sense of time when she tries to explain that her dad should be home by now.

RUBY: But the big deal is he was going to be home, and then three months before he came home, he was gone. Three months. This would have been no more months until Pop comes home. No more months until Pop comes home.

McCHESNEY: On a good day, Daisy has everybody fed and onto the front porch by 7:30. The porch is strewn with backpacks, boots and jackets.

Ms. PELLONT: What do you want? Are you wearing shoes or are you wearing boots today?

Unidentified Child: Boots.

Ms. PELLONT: Boots. Okay, that means we have to make sure you have shoes in your backpack. So when you go up there -

McCHESNEY: Later, Daisy, who is against the war in Iraq, describes scenes at the airport when husband Ron Michael, 6'4", is arriving or leaving.

Ms. PELLONT: And there you are, and whether you want to be or not, you are a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. I want to have an asterisk that said, I don't agree with this, this isn't my thing. And there you are with this giant soldier, and these little, teeny beautiful children, and they're running and jumping and hugging.

And every single time, men in three-piece suits - or two-piece nowadays, I guess - will walk up to you, say I'm sorry to intrude, and reach out and shake your hand, and they will cry because they're so moved by the reality of what this war is doing to people and how it's tearing families up and bringing them together. And to see little children, you know, grieving and babies and - I mean, it's so painful to stand there.

McCHESNEY: From St. Paul, we drove northwest to the country home of Amanda and John Engels(ph), near the town of Minneota.

Unidentified Child: You hear that sound?

Ms. AMANDA ENGELS: That's a noisy one, isn't it?

McCHESNEY: These kittens were born in the barn behind the Engels' rented farmhouse. Benjamin, age 4, shows off a tiny orange thing named Dandelion. Amanda Engels, a slender brunette, gestures at the dusty tarps thrown over machinery in front of us.

Ms. ENGELS: The barn is full of the pickup that we don't use, the tractor that we use for moving snow that I don't know how to use, the lawnmower, the boat that doesn't get used, the kids' bikes, cats and dogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McCHESNEY: The Engels have four kids under the age of 9. Amanda says her husband's lengthy deployment is wearing her down.

Ms. ENGELS: I've been sick so much, and the doctor just keeps saying, well, it's stress. Your body is rundown and you're tired. I lost 30 pounds between July and August because I was sick. It was all I could do to get up and drive to the hospital and then come back and stop at the farm and crawl on the couch and just go to sleep again.

McCHESNEY: Amanda and her husband knew that deployment might come. So they moved here, so she and the kids would be close to John's parents, who run a farm just around the corner. John is a judge advocate in the military and a country lawyer at home. His clients have moved on while he's been in Iraq.

Ms. ENGELS: The business is kind of gone. That's - is gone. He's going to have to start over when he comes home. He is going to have to go back to work right away, instead of being able to stay home and get back into a groove with his family, you know, learn how to live together with all the kids again.

McCHESNEY: Amanda says she thinks America did a good thing removing Saddam Hussein. But she adds that too much has been asked of the Minnesota Guard. As we're leaving, she shows us pictures of the kids and her husband on the refrigerator door. Then she rather sheepishly reaches around the dark side of the fridge and pulls out a picture of President Bush.

Ms. ENGELS: I had to hide him a little bit. I couldn't look at his face every day. That was just a - not a good way to start the day, to wake up and see the president on the fridge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ENGELS: Oh, boy. I wouldn't put the president anywhere - close to any of the women in Minnesota.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ENGELS: I know if I was in a room with him, it would be hard for me to control myself, I think.

McCHESNEY: From the Engels' house, we drove south through loamy black fields studded with tan corn stubble emerging from snow. Towns are few and far between. Picture-perfect farms with silos and classic red barns dot the landscape.

Jody and Captain Don Kramer have a brand new farmhouse just yards from the Iowa border. We talked with Jody in her kitchen, surrounded by her six children ranging from six months to 10.

JODY: I have to keep the books - the first fall he was gone, I had to sell grain, and I had to learn about LDP-ing(ph) your crops. And I got to know the ladies at the elevator really well.

MCCHESNEY: She says she's been a supporter of the war, but after the extension, she and her husband feel used. Don Kramer now will have missed two planting seasons in a row. In addition to six kids and the farm, Jody is a certified public accountant with a private practice. This super mom does have some help, though; two sets of grandparents are nearby.

Against the dining room wall stands a life-sized picture of Captain Kramer. These photos, known as flat daddies, were donated by a local business to Guard families in the area. Jody points back at her daughter, Claire, who's combing her mother's hair while we talk.

JODY: My 4-year-old back here will walk around with him, hug him, kiss him. Every now and then, she looks at me perplexed and says, Mommy, my daddy doesn't talk.

MCCHESNEY: In addition to explaining that to Claire, Jody has had to do some explaining to her oldest son Jonathan, who will have his 11th birthday tomorrow without his dad. This is how Jonathan reacted to news that his father wouldn't be home.

JONATHAN: I was mad. I was really upset at my mom because I thought it was her fault that she let dad be deployed. I just didn't talk to her for the rest of the night. I didn't talk to anybody for the rest of the night.

MCCHESNEY: Why did you think it was your mom's fault?

JONATHAN: I thought she could convince him not to join the Army and quit the Army.

MCCHESNEY: The Minnesota 1st Combat Brigade Team is supposed to come back in July. But the families remain anxious, because as yet, no hard date has been set for their homecoming.

John McChesney, NPR News.

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