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War & Family: War Tugs At Family Ties

Discussion in 'News, Politics & Debates' started by goingonhope, Jul 9, 2007.

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  1. goingonhope

    goingonhope Member Premium Member

    War & family: War tugs at family ties

    Sunday, July 08, 2007

    Josh Shurtliff and his mom had a communication problem. The 11-year-old boy finally had to ask her: Why is it that every time we instant-message, the people over there start shooting rockets at you?

    Not a lot of Vancouver families have that problem.

    But then, military families have a lot of issues their neighbors don't have to deal with, particularly when a parent is serving in a combat zone. Even something that sounds like a typical childhood issue can take on a whole new dimension for a family at war.

    Laura Truitt, a teacher at York Elementary School, saw it happen this year in her classroom. Truitt's second-graders were sympathizing with a classmate, Abbi Sears, whose dad is on active duty in Iraq.

    "Other kids, in trying to relate, would say things like, 'Once, my mom went away for five hours and I was really sad.' Abbi hadn't seen her father in months. They had no grasp of how much time that was," Truitt said. Abbi's father is Staff Sgt. Robert Sears, a member of the Washington Army National Guard.

    But mom can be a warrior, too, like Petty Officer 2nd Class Laurie Schmid. The U.S. Navy reservist recently returned from Afghanistan.

    When Sears and Schmid went to war, they left behind typical suburban families in typical Vancouver subdivisions. Only faded yellow ribbons at the front of Schmid's house distinguish her home from its neighbors.

    We're a nation at war, but not everybody is involved. Many of those serving in the Middle East are family people, not professional soldiers living on a military base. "These are reservists who are plucked out of their regular lives," said Tiffany Morrison, a counselor at Riverview Elementary School in the Evergreen district.

    And for their children, "anxiety comes with deployment," Morrison said. "It's especially hard for them, whether they're waiting for someone to leave or to come back. The less definite the timelines, the harder for the kids."

    Sears and his wife, Christina, have six children, including four still at home: 12 yrs.; 8; 6 yrs; and 4. Christina's stepchildren are 17, she lives with her grandparents in Vancouver, and a 19-year-old boy, who is away at school.

    Schmid, a single mother, has three children: 13; 11; and 8 yrs. The three children stayed with her brother's family while Schmid was stationed in Afghanistan.

    Even when there was a precious opportunity for some long-distance moments together, like those instant messages, the war often forced its way in. "We'd be in a conversation," Joshua recalled. "Then she'd say, 'Gotta go. They're bombing us.' "

    "Sirens were going off," Schmid explained. "We'd have to grab our weapons and head for the bomb shelter." When Schmid was able to leave the shelter, "I got back online and said, 'I'm fine.' My brother said the kids were crying," she said. "The first time it happens, you're all scared," Joshua said. "Then you get over it."

    New house, new rules

    Morrison is a school counselor, but she recognizes how a deployment can influence a student's home life. Part of that is the setting: Maybe the child is living with a relative who has a different routine or household rules. Schmid's three kids ran into some of that while staying with her brother and his wife and their two children. "Grant and Gretchen are a whole lot stricter," Schmid said. "We had to keep our rooms cleaner, and had a couple of more chores," said Larissa Shurtliff. "The kids got two hours of TV a week, and if they didn't have homework, Gretchen gave them some," Schmid said.

    But staying at home doesn't guarantee stability. That home suddenly is being run by a single parent, who might have to take on extra work to pay the bills. That means less time to help the kids with their school assignments. With Staff Sgt. Sears a long-distance dad now, running a home with four children is a solo gig for Christina Sears. "That sucks," she said. "I don't know how people do it."

    It's just not the additional work: It's the isolation that comes when a spouse is on the other side of the world. "There's no one to talk to," Christina Sears said. That's one reason she is glad to go to work at Portland's Legacy Emanuel Hospital, where she is an emergency-room nurse. "I get a chance to have an adult conversation."

    Vancouver soldier Sears took the opportunity to salute his wife recently in an e-mail from Iraq. "I have been blessed with a very understanding wife," Sears wrote. "She has never questioned why I choose to be a soldier. She has told me many times that she is very proud of what I do and could never ask more from me. ? I still feel I should be giving more. She works so hard at keeping the kids focused on other things while I am overseas. To me, she is the true hero in our family."

    The kids do get updates by e-mail and the occasional phone conversation. Sears says he enjoys hearing about "how they did on projects at school, or awards they received for a job well done."

    Somber reminder

    But Alexis knows her family is dealing with some serious issues. And that's why she asked for one accommodation in her sixth-grade classes at Middle School this year. "I asked them not to say 'Iraq,' because it reminds me that my dad is in Iraq," said the 12-year-old girl.

    Wartime issues can play out in several ways in the classroom, said Morrison, an Elementary school counselor. "Kids can use school as an escape and focus on what they're doing here," she said.

    But if they can't cope?

    "They can't focus on their studies," the counselor said. "Sometimes it comes out in the form of distraction or irritation. At its extreme, it would result in fighting or aggression."

    Children who are depressed "can have trouble sleeping, can have changes in appetite, or can have trouble getting organized. I have met with kids one-on-one to offer support and give them a chance to air their anxieties and talk about those feelings.
    "I've also connected families with outside counseling resources that are offered in the community - usually at low or no cost - when appropriate," Morrison said.
    Riverview doesn't have a lot of military families, Morrison said, and the school doesn't want to make these kids feel "different."

    "You want to support them, but you don't want to make them feel alienated," Morrison said.

    That was a not a problem during the war of her childhood, said Vancouver resident Louisa T. "In World War II, everybody was involved," she said, who is Laurie Schmid's grandmother. "I was 11 when the war broke out, and I remember the USO sending young soldiers to our house for dinner. My mother would correspond with some of their parents. "We had rationing. People canned food. You would have to borrow food stamps, or trade stamps for something else, to get sugar for canning," Louisa T. said. "Even students in junior high school bought war bonds."

    Louisa T. has pitched in again. She provided a home for her grandson Grant's family as well as Laurie's three children during part of the Naval reservist's deployment.

    Most are not affected

    "People can't relate" to today's war families, Louisa said. "Their lives are going on as normal. It's a very different kind of war."

    There are some classroom acknowledgements. Laura Truitt's second-graders at York Elementary had a "pen pal" project with Staff Sgt. Sears this year. "The class started writing to him in December," 8-year-old Abbi Sears said.

    "Their sense of geography is very limited, and they don't have a good grasp of what war is like," Truitt said. "The main thing was letting her know that what her dad is doing is very important."

    During the last week of the school year, Abbi Sears and her classmates replied to the sergeant's last letter. He had noted that the temperature "topped out at 115 degrees," and that the Iraqis seemed amused at how the heat affected the Americans.

    "I wish I could tell you exactly what I do," Sears said in his e-mail, "but my boss says 'No.' "

    Back in the Sears' living room, Christina says she doesn't know what her husband is doing either, or where. He is "somewhere in Iraq," she said, and "that's all the information I need. The less I know, the less I worry."

    The 40-year-old soldier is a member of the Washington National Guard's 791st Chemical Co. He was called to active duty a year ago - July 7, 2006 - and was shipped to Iraq in October.

    "When it came to telling Chrissy, it wasn't too hard. We had talked about it before as a real possibility, due to the other units in the state that have deployed. So, I guess she was ready for the worst," Sears said in an e-mail message.

    "As for the kids, when I told them, I didn't get the reaction that I thought I would. They asked all the basic questions that kids ask. What is it going to be like over there? What are you going to be doing when you are over there? I couldn't answer those questions. I didn't want them to think about that. All they would do is worry about me every minute.

    "I tried to explain that Daddy has to go and do this job so the people in Iraq would have a chance at a better life. I explained to them that there are kids their age that don't get to go to school because the school has been blown up. Or because they are scared to go outside. These are just a few things that we as soldiers would like to change and hope that we can," said Sears, who has been in the National Guard for about 12 years.

    Sears is scheduled to come home in November.

    As a U.S. Navy storekeeper, Schmid was part of a system that sent supplies out to military units in forward operating areas. "I enjoyed my time there," said Schmid, even though she cited a lot of reasons why most people might not.

    "It was 130 degrees in the summer," she said. "You had grit in your teeth every day. We nicknamed it 'moon dust' because it was so powdery," she said. "In the winter, it was so cold our toilets froze."

    'The roughest day for me'

    Then there was the war. In addition to the intermittent rocket and mortar attacks, Schmid was on the base when a suicide bomber killed 23 people near Bagram Air Base during a February visit by Vice President Dick Cheney. "That was the roughest day for me," she said. "I knew one of the people who was killed."

    But family issues overshadowed everything else, she said. "Being away from my kids was worse than the hardest day over there," she said. And their occasional chances to communicate only emphasized the stark differences between here and there.

    "When I called, all the kids wanted to do was complain," she said, re-creating a couple of conversation lines. " 'The rules are different.' 'Well, it is not important for you to tell me that an 8:30 p.m. bedtime sucks for you. I can't hear just complaining. That's too hard for me.' "

    People in a war zone need to maintain focus, even when they miss their kids. "I sometimes would rather be talking to my family, but in my position, I cannot let that draw my attention away from the job I am here to do," Sears said in his message from Iraq.

    For Schmid, other reminders of her family affected her fight for focus. While working with local truckers outside the wire, Schmid met a lot of children. "A school was next to the truck yard. They'd practice their English," she said. "They'd tell me about school, and it was all I could do to maintain focus: How thick are their clothes? Could he be wearing a bomb?

    "Here, a little kid gives you a hug. There, he might stick you," she said. "This is tough. This kid is the same age as mine.

    Did you know?

    • About 20,000 students in Washington have had a parent deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

    • Fifty-six percent of U.S. forces in the war are National Guard or Reserve members; many of them live in civilian communities, not on or near military bases.

    SOURCE: Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs
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