(Host) For the many people separated from loved ones by the war, everyday life is full of challenges, both practical and emotional. In the final story in our series on “The Home Front,” VPR’s Susan Keese looks at how those left behind get by.
(Sounds of a Christmas tree lot, music) “That one, too tall?”
(Keese) Holiday rituals like picking out a Christmas tree can be hard when your husband is a Guardsman stationed in Iraq.
(Rachel Hickory and student, laughing) “Tell you what, you can take that back to Thailand with you. We’ll ship it, what do you think?”
(Keese) That’s one reason Rachel Hickory took in an exchange student.
(Hickory) “Because it would have been very hard for me to be here myself. And I knew I could also help her, in my own way.”
(Keese) Hickory’s husband Mike is one of 200 northern Vermont National Guardsman who left last January on an 18-month tour. Hickory has two sons from a previous marriage, but they’re both grown, so she was alone.
(Hickory) “It was very hard at first, because my family’s not around here. So I really depended on – at first I really depended on the support group. One particular person who really, really helped me. I met her at some event and she’s a very warm person, and she told me I could call her any time, so I did.”
(Keese) The National Guard’s family support network holds monthly spaghetti suppers for troop families. It sponsors services and events – everything from tax help to counseling to occasional child care. Early on someone in the group asked Hickory to volunteer to check in on other families from her husband’s unit.
(Hickory) “And I said, wait a minute, I can’t call anybody. I’m not feeling that good myself. I was hoping that somebody would call me. But in time things got better and I was able to do that.”
(Keese) She has four families that she calls at least twice a month. She says it helps her too, to know what someone else is going through. Recently she learned that the husband of the woman who’d helped her has been deployed.
(Hickory) “And she told me that it’s going to be very, very hard for her because their daughter is a year old and he’s going to miss all the important events, birthdays and all that. So I’ve called her a few times and she hasn’t returned my phone calls. But that’s okay, I’ll keep calling her.”
(Keese) Another wife in Hickory’s husband’s unit says the support network has been a disappointment. She hasn’t been called by anyone, and she finds the monthly suppers too hectic and noisy.
Hickory says she’s benefited by knowing how to ask for help when she needs it. But she says that helping someone else has proved the best survival strategy. And she says she feels a certain pride in having handled a year’s worth of minor crises, like water in the basement or a broken window.
Lisa Gilbeau of West Wardsboro belongs to several groups that put together care packages for the troops. She agrees that it helps to do something constructive with people who understand what she’s going through.
(Gilbeau) “It gives you a really good feeling inside, sending them out.”
(Keese) But nothing can erase the fact that both the Gilbeaus’ sons are active duty Marines. Their oldest, Adam, who’s 23, has finished two tours in Afghanistan and just took part in the offensive on Fallujah. Their youngest, Willie, is 21. He was in the convoy that spearheaded the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He’s since been back a second time.
(Dan Gilbeau) “You always think of it, whether you’re staying busy or not. You’re still thinking of what’s happening over there and what they might be going through. Are they laying there scared to death? (Cries.) You know, you try to block it out but you can’t block it out all the time, you know.”
(Keese) Gilbeau’s husband Dan doesn’t think of himself as the support group type. But he gets something like the same thing going rabbit hunting with his buddies, or fooling around with his hunting dogs. He avoids watching the news on television.
(Gilbeau) “I talked to Willie last night and we’re going to go out rabbit hunting when he comes back.”
(Keese) The Gilbeau’s youngest will be home on leave for Christmas this year. Their oldest is patrolling the Euphrates in a small boat. Lisa Gilbeau saves his e-mails and even his voice messages on the phone.
(Phone message) (Beep.) “Hi guys, just calling to say hi and see how it’s been. I will call another time though. Take care and be safe. Love you, bye.”
(Keese) His mother says a lot of people ask them how they make it through.
(Gilbeau) “Sometimes I don’t think we ourselves even know.”
(Keese) She says the ordeal has made them all stronger. But it never gets easy.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.
The production engineer for our series on “The Home Front” was Sam Sanders.