October 6, 2008, Cameron, NC – For Private First Class Michael Anderson, the perils he could face on his first deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan next year are the least of his worries.
Anderson, 22, says he is more concerned about how his wife, Tunisia, 30, and the four children they are bringing up – from six months to 9 years old – will cope with his long absence; whether they will be able to make ends meet; the long-term effects on their relationship; indeed, even whether the family can hold together.
In the new military housing development where they live outside Fort Bragg, just one of the military communities that ring the Army’s largest base on the East Coast, the neatly manicured lawns, American flags, and bright new playgrounds mask a messier reality about military life this election season.
“The family situation for soldiers stinks,” Anderson said in the living room of his simple two-story house in Lyndon Oaks, home to enlisted soldiers and their families, as his wife put away groceries from Wal-Mart.
“This is an area that needs a lot of improvement as far as things that help soldiers,” he added, including more pay and benefits and family-support programs.
“The wives don’t have much to do,” he said. “They get bored. They need to have more types of recreational things.”
In large part because of such anxieties, soldiers and their spouses are more engaged in this presidential election than ever before, according to longtime observers of the Fort Bragg area. They are keenly interested to see what the candidates’ policies will mean for the future of their communities.
But many of them are caught between their frustration with their predicament and a desire to make sure the mission in Iraq is respected and their service is honored.
Anderson, for example, said he believes that “the soldiers aren’t being respected when they come home.” He complained of local stores in the Fort Bragg area “taking advantage of us” by jacking up prices.
Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Army has taken unprecedented steps to help soldiers and their families cope with the strains of multiple deployments, unleashing a battalion of family assistance specialists, financial advisers, and setting up a variety of new counseling programs.
The Army has repeatedly acknowledged the strain caused by such deployments, including a higher divorce rate than in other military branches.
“There is a maturity in how the Army supports these families,” insists retired Colonel George Quigley, 69, now a community volunteer and organizer for the McCain campaign, which is trying to convince military families that the former prisoner of war will provide more benefits, if not an immediate let-up in the pace of deployments.
Still, the Andersons and their neighbors are among thousands of military families around Fort Bragg who are bearing the brunt of the longest conflict in American history involving an all-volunteer military – a force that also has the highest percentage of married soldiers, 60 percent – than in any previous conflict.
For a growing number of them, their deep sense of duty is threatened by the daily struggle for the semblance of a normal life, forcing them to question how much longer they can hold out, according to nearly two-dozen interviews a Globe reporter conducted last month with soldiers, their spouses, counselors, and community leaders.
Wives with husbands deployed overseas whispered of countless Army marriages falling apart, often as a result of infidelity. Mothers complained about the hardships of living on the salary of an enlisted soldier such as Anderson – who receives less than $1,400 a month in base pay – including wartime bonuses.
Others spoke in serious tones of soldiers struggling to rejoin their families after returning from war with scars, both mental and physical, and young children who barely recognize them.
“They are breaking up families,” said Chandra Vargas, 27, whose husband is deployed a second time to the Middle East and who stopped by the Andersons, her two children in tow, to plan a late summer trip to the beach. “The same guys are going over and over again. You get a little bit of extra money, but it ain’t worth it. They are leaving the moms to be single parents. People are getting ‘Dear John’ letters.”
She implored: “Who is going to hear our pain?”
The soldiers and their spouses have conflicting views on how the candidates might help or aggravate the situation.
Anderson, for example, says he is drawn to the message of Barack Obama, who has pledged to bring US troops home from Iraq, but worries that the Democrat may not uphold the military’s appropriate place of honor in society as much as his opponent, Republican and Vietnam veteran John McCain.
“Obama hasn’t said that more money will be going to military personnel,” Anderson said, a common refrain in the insular world of the military ranks despite the candidate’s proposals for enhancing military and veterans programs.
“McCain has good ideas military-wise,” Anderson continued, “such as more pay.”
“I am a little scared about Obama,” added Staff Sergeant Oswaldo Gabriel Garcia, 26, after he got a trim in the Bragg Barber Shop on Bragg Boulevard, located in a shabby strip mall next to a dry cleaners, a few shuttered storefronts, a tax service and a Cash N’ Advance “coming soon.”
Garcia, who has completed two tours in Iraq and is married to another soldier who is based in Washington state, worries that Obama will “downgrade” the military. “That is not the way to go,” he said. “We have a war on two fronts.”
Obama has said he would start drawing down US forces in Iraq as soon as he took office and expects to have all US combat forces out within 16 months. McCain has said he wants all combat troops out by 2013 but opposes any timetable and wants to be certain that US forces do what is necessary to ensure that Iraq doesn’t become a haven for terrorists. Both candidates say they would improve benefits for veterans.
A growing number of soldiers, many of them in the lower enlisted ranks or junior officers, express support for Obama, whose campaign has launched a voter registration drive on Fort Bragg.
Soldiers such as Latoya Jackson, 26, who has been deployed to Iraq four times and is set to go to Afghanistan next year, want to know when the deployments will ease.
“I have been deployed four times and I have been in the Army nine years,” she said, adding that she is looking for a president “who is going to help us, not hurt us.”
But meeting the challenges facing military families simply outstrips the Army’s ability to deal with it comprehensively.
So the state of North Carolina last year provided funds for the Cumberland County School District – where nearly one out of three students has a military parent – to hire its first full-time liaison to military families.
They turned to Shannon Shurko, 32, a former elementary school teacher and mother of two whose husband is on his second combat tour.
Over a dinner of shrimp and grits at Georgia Brown’s in nearby Fayetteville, Shurko emptied a suitcase filled with pamphlets, binders and other materials she lugs to meetings with parents, teachers, and Fort Bragg officials.
There are practical tools such as “A Teacher’s Guide to Deployment Issues,” which outlines “signs of separation anxiety.” Another guide, designed for military families, advises: “Prepare for deployment now. Resolve family problems before the separation. Time doesn’t heal all wounds nor does absence necessarily make the heart grow fonder if there are unresolved issues left behind.”
She holds up a copy of a magazine called “Military Spouse” she recently discovered, which offers a military psychologists’ perspective on the impact of multiple deployments. “We have taken a big hit,” Shurko said of military families like her own. “It was a rough deployment,” she said of her husband’s first combat tour. “Fifteen months is a long time.”
Shurko, like many others interviewed, spoke not only of the difficulty of the multiple separations but the less-appreciated struggle to make the family whole again after reuniting with spouses and parents that have been at war.
“He missed so much,” she said of her husband.
And just when her husband was getting to know his sons again, he received orders to deploy again. She doesn’t want her husband to go overseas again, Shurko said. “I want my boys to know something other than chaos.”
Vargas, after making an emotional appeal for help, scolded another Army wife whose husband is deployed, Sabrina Rivera, 24 – a mother of three with another on the way – when she said she isn’t planning to vote.
“We have to make a difference!” Vargas told her.
But asked if she had decided whom she will turn to, Vargas paused before adding, “I don’t know who I am voting for. It’s kind of tricky.”