CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Patty B. Morgan's husband was fighting in Iraq with the 101st Airborne and she was caring for two children by herself. Their lease was expiring and they had committed to buying a house across town, so she was going through with the move anyway.
One hot morning last July, as she was about to drive boxes to the new place, she walked outside, infant car seat in hand, and opened the garage door — to find that her green Jeep had been stolen.
A few days later, she was told that her husband wouldn't be home by Labor Day, as she had expected, but would serve in Iraq six months more, for a total of a year.
"It was a hell of a week," Morgan said in her throaty voice.
Morgan's experience is part of a significant change in Army life brought about by the war on terrorism: The extended, or repeated, deployments that characterize the post-9/11 Army have intensified the burdens traditionally borne by military families. And most of the spouses who have remained behind are wondering how long the Army can keep it up.
This change is reflected in a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, and in dozens of supplemental interviews. The poll, the first nongovernmental survey of military spouses conducted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, included more than 1,000 spouses living on or near the 10 heaviest-deploying Army bases.
While most of them said they have coped well, three-quarters said they believed that the Army may hit a personnel crisis as soldiers and their families tire of the pace and leave for civilian lives.
Lt. Gen. Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck, the Army's personnel chief, said in an interview that overall, The Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll results seemed to reflect those of the service's internal surveys.
The findings come at a time when the Army is providing soldiers' families with unprecedented levels of support. Over the past 30 years, beginning with the end of conscription after the Vietnam War, the service became smaller, more professional — and more married. By the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the military was caught flat-footed by the growing need to support soldiers' families during a major deployment.
In response, the Army built a robust network of family supports ranging from day care to counseling to legal help to instruction in Army basics, household finance and coping with stress. In addition, spouses can volunteer together and watch over one another through Army Family Readiness Groups.
As Patty Morgan dealt with her crisis last July, she also drew on another common, and powerful, source: her "military girlfriends" from nearby Fort Campbell, Ky. They swooped in, she recalled, to provide baby sitting, transportation and relief from her volunteer duties with her Army Family Readiness Group so she could go ahead with her move and do the paperwork to replace the Jeep. "We have formed bonds," she said. "We're all family."
Hagenbeck said the Army is taking family concerns over deployments into account. "We recognize that as a major issue," he said. Yet in the war on terrorism, the Army is becoming increasingly expeditionary — that is, based in the United States but prepared to take on a stream of new missions overseas. "That's the business we're going to be in for a while," said Col. Michael Resty, the garrison commander at Fort Carson, Colo. "Anybody who thinks differently is fooling themselves."
The strain on troops and their families has led some in Congress to advocate a big boost in the size of the active-duty Army, which stands at about 485,000 troops.
The Pentagon is planning to add 30,000 soldiers over the next several years, but before agreeing to further expansion, it wants to see whether the other steps it is taking will ease the strain. Most notably, the Pentagon is reorganizing divisions to expand the number of the Army's deployable brigades from 33 to 48. In addition, the Army has announced a new policy under which troops will serve longer tours at bases, permitting their families to put down deeper roots.
The question is whether those steps will be sufficient. "There's no way to know for sure," said Tom Donnelly, a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee. Donnelly said he expects that 2005 will be "the make-or-break year," as some soldiers who have already served in Iraq for a year are sent back for a second tour.
In the meantime, repeated and unpredictable deployments remain Army spouses' biggest issue. In The Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll, a slight majority — 55 percent — said their spouses' current deployment had been extended longer than they expected. Of that group, more than a third said that had created "major problems" for them.
"It was a roller coaster," said Meg Davis, whose husband, a lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division, spent the past year in Iraq. "Everybody said six months, so we were expecting August, worst-case scenario." Instead, her husband did not return home until February.
Of those spouses polled, 95 percent were women, and three-quarters had one or more children younger than 18. The same proportion had had a spouse deployed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001. A third of those whose husbands had deployed and returned said they expected another deployment in the next year. The poll did not examine the problems faced by the families of National Guard and Reserve troops because they are a far more difficult population to locate and survey.
In approximately equal measures, large majorities of Army wives said that coping with their spouses' deployment had been a problem, but that they were proud of their service to the country. Many resented media coverage that portrays them as not handling it well. "It's not fair to us, or to the guys over there, to say that we're all
having nervous breakdowns, because we're not," said Holly Petraeus, wife of the commander of the 101st Airborne.
At the same time, some worry about the toll on their marriages, and far more worry about the emotional strain they see in their children.
There is almost one child — a total of about 470,000 — for each soldier on active duty in the Army. In interviews, mothers said the Iraq deployment has been harder on their children than it has been on them. In the poll, three-quarters said the deployment had created problems for their offspring, with more than a quarter characterizing the troubles as major. Two-thirds said their sons and daughters were "sad"; about three in 10 said their children were more aggressive or had trouble concentrating.
"When my husband deployed to Afghanistan, my fourth-grader, the light kind of went out of her face," said Amanda Hicks, whose husband is a pilot in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Hicks and her fellow teachers at Ringgold Elementary School, the school closest to the gates of Fort Campbell, said their current students are notably fragile. "I have got the teariest class this year," said Debbie Sanders, a kindergarten teacher. "They just cry all the time."
While half of the spouses rated their own morale as high, less than a third rated the morale of the families around them similarly.
And even though they feel at least somewhat supported by their nonmilitary countrymen, the spouses do not feel particularly well understood by them — not even by their own extended families. With the community of wives living on and around Army bases offering an attractive alternative, this generation has broken the long-established pattern of going back home for the duration of a husband's deployment.
"We have become a sorority of separation," said Anne Torza, wife of an Apache attack-helicopter pilot in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, "and I wouldn't give up my sisters for anything. You know that 'band of brothers'? We're a band of sisters."
"It's been a rough, rough, tiresome year," said Jeniqua Knuckles, mother of three and wife of an artillery sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division who spent most of 2003 in northern Iraq.
That was what the women who did well tended to say. More than 40 percent of those with deployed spouses said the experience had left them depressed, and nearly twice that figure said they often felt lonely.
Family-oriented holidays were especially difficult: Candice Foster, whose husband is a staff sergeant in the 4th Infantry Division, said she left the Christmas tree up an extra two months with all her husband's presents underneath.
"The hardest part is going to bed and waking up alone, every night and day being alone," said Amy Greene, wife of a 3rd Armored Cavalry medic and mother of a baby born while her husband was in Iraq for the past year. "It's very hard, especially when you see all the happy families together and you know that your family may never be together again."
Although the possibility of death has become part of their everyday lives — over the past year, 585 U.S. troops have died in Iraq — the women do not talk about it much, at least not directly. Their avoidance was reflected in the cautious way some talked when asked about memorial services. Foster said she simply could not attend them. "I thought it was just too hard, with my husband still over there," she said. "It could be him."