New Jersey Guard Families Fight War of Their Own While Troops Fight in Iraq

The New York Times

October 5, 2008, Teaneck, NJ – More than anything, John and Adriana Roldan love each other and their two little boys, Brandon, 5, and Samuel, 1. And so now that Mr. Roldan, a mechanic and a building superintendent and a New Jersey National Guardsman, has been deployed to Iraq for the second time in three years, he and his wife will start lying to each other again, just as they lied their way through his first Iraq tour.

That first time, Mr. Roldan told Mrs. Roldan that as a mechanic, he never left the base in Iraq.

And Mrs. Roldan – who has taken over his job as building superintendent – told Mr. Roldan that everything was great with their son Brandon.

The truth was, Sergeant Roldan was accompanying convoys in combat zones to repair armored vehicles that broke down. “Every time we went out, we got small arms fire,” he said. “I try to keep it to myself. I thought if I told her what exactly I was doing, she was going to be more worried.”

As for Mrs. Roldan’s lies: Brandon was 2 during that first deployment, and missed his father so much – “His two big words were ‘Where’s Daddy?’ ” – that he threw terrifying tantrums, his mother said.

“He used to bang his head against the floor, he used to bite himself, he used to scratch himself,” she said. “I guess he was just mad and furious that his Daddy wasn’t here and he couldn’t understand, being so small.”

Mrs. Roldan has developed a mantra for her husband’s calls home from Iraq: “It’s only a three-minute call, the lines are long, just tell them you’re doing fine,” she said. “Never tell them you’re depressed or sad.”

“Him not knowing what I do, I think it helps him through the deployment. I mean, I didn’t give him no problems, I always try to be as happy as I can when he calls. I said his son was great, he never cried.”

It wasn’t until her husband came back that he learned the truth. Mrs. Roldan had made a video of one of Brandon’s tantrums and played it for him. “John cried,” she said.

For her part, Mrs. Roldan didn’t learn about the dangers of her husband’s first tour until three years later, when he told a reporter during an interview at the end of August, days before he left for his second tour. “I thought he was safe,” she said, “Now all of a sudden he’s in convoys. Now I don’t know if he’s telling me the truth.”

Last month, 2,850 of New Jersey’s 6,000 National Guard citizen-soldiers left for Iraq, the largest combat deployment of the state’s Guard since World War II. And it is not just the soldiers doing hard duty. During the Vietnam War, the average soldier was 19. Today the average age for the active-duty Army is 27; 55.5 percent of Army soldiers are married, as are 45 percent of the National Guard, according to a 2007 Office of Army Demographics report. For every active duty Army soldier (518,000) there is nearly one child (493,484).

In some ways, the demographics for soldiers of the Iraq war and their families are closer to World War II (when the average soldier was 26) than the typical unmarried, teenage soldiers of Vietnam, according to Richard L. Baker, an information specialist for the Army Heritage and Education Center.

In June, when Guard members (including 250 women) left New Jersey for two months of training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Tex., before shipping out to Iraq, they left behind 1,400 children, according to Amanda Balas, the state Guard’s youth coordinator. And that number is growing. “I know of 20 more since,” said Ms. Balas, who sends handmade quilts to newborns of deployed soldiers.

Family members are hopeful that the units are heading for a relatively safe mission; the soldiers spent their two months in Texas training for guard duty at military prisons in Baghdad, Bukka and Balad. Specialist Gregg Walls, 39, is an accountant from Teaneck who is being deployed for the first time and has left behind his wife, Iris, a real estate agent, and two young children, Gabriella, 6, and Ian, 3. In an interview in Texas, in late August, before leaving, he said he was not looking to be a hero: “Some of the guys want to do convoys, they want to get outside the wire, they want to do the hurrah stuff. Fine, have a good time, see you when you get back.”

But 30 percent of this deployment is on its second tour, and those soldiers, like Sergeant Roldan, 29, of Cliffside Park, and Cpl. Thomas Jefferson, 40, of Prospect Park, know that what you are sent to do, and what you actually do, can be two different things. “What will happen when we get there, one never knows,” Corporal Jefferson, a father of five married to Cathy, an assistant school librarian, said shortly before shipping out. Mr. Jefferson is a water purifier for the Passaic Valley Water Commission and was sent to Iraq in 2005 to do water purification in Tikrit. That lasted a few months, before he was transferred to a combat zone in Samara.

When a fellow soldier sent Mrs. Jefferson photos of her husband, she was puzzled. He wasn’t purifying water. “I say, ‘Why’s my husband posing on the top of this truck with this big gun?’ Only later on did I find out he’s the gunner.”

“I would not tell my wife what I was doing until I came home,” said Mr. Jefferson. “I don’t have to sit over there and put no more worry in her mind and heart.”

Combat takes a toll – even for men like Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Roldan, who returned outwardly healthy the first time, rejoined their families, resumed their jobs and are now back in Iraq.

Mr. Jefferson had several close calls during his first tour, and when he returned in 2005, his wife and children told him he wasn’t the same outgoing, fun-loving Dad and husband they remembered.

His first New Year’s Eve back, the family attended a midnight service at Victory Temple United Holy Church in Paterson, and as they walked out, someone celebrating set off a firecracker. Mr. Jefferson ran away, leaving behind his surprised family, including his son Thomas Jr., then 9. “He had this embarrassed look,” said Mrs. Jefferson. “He was embarrassed that little Tommy had seen.”

One night, after Mr. Roldan returned, a car backfired on a nearby street, and Mrs. Roldan woke to find him on the floor of their bedroom taking cover from incoming fire.

A study by the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research estimated that of the 1.6 million soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan as of October 2007, 300,000 had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

The sensational cases – murders, suicides, spouse abuse – make headlines, but the private fears and problems that the Jeffersons went through are probably more typical.

Mr. Jefferson has such a beautiful voice that when he finished singing to Cathy at his wedding, the whole church gave him a standing ovation. He’s done theater, served as a Prospect Park town councilman and has always been involved with his children. At young Thomas’s football games, Mr. Jefferson’s booming sideline voice was a regular feature.

That changed after his first tour. “He was standoffish – basically he isolated himself from the family,” Mrs. Jefferson said. “He’d be in the same room as the family but not interacting.”

Mr. Jefferson became aggressive, had bouts of road rage, did not sleep well, dreamed of things blowing up, could not concentrate for a course he was taking.

“I’m used to someone just talking to me constantly and then I had this shell of a person who came back,” Mrs. Jefferson said. “I kept asking him: ‘Can I help you with something? Do you want to talk?’ And he never wanted to discuss anything with me.”

Nor could he tell her why.

“I don’t know, I really don’t,” Mr. Jefferson said. “It was just a lot I kept inside, a lot I just never wanted to talk about.”

His first months back, he worked a night shift at the water commission and was home during the day when the house was empty. “I’d be by myself, and I was in glory,” he said. “Nobody to talk to, nobody to bother with me, I could just relax or just be in my own little world, which wasn’t normal for me.”

Mr. Jefferson made visits to a Veterans Affairs therapist, switched to day hours, and slowly, the Jeffersons said, started getting back to himself.

And then came the second deployment.

“Just when we thought we were getting some kind of normalcy,” Mrs. Jefferson said.

A week before leaving, Mr. Jefferson said, “I still can’t say I’m 100 percent.”

FAMILIES of career soldiers live on bases or in nearby military towns with strong support networks. National Guard families are largely invisible, scattered through the country, surrounded by civilians who are often oblivious to the war, and certainly don’t fret daily about the next phone call from Iraq.

To help spouses and children, the state has created family support centers at many of the 33 armories in New Jersey. The one here in Teaneck is widely considered the best, and that’s largely because of the woman who runs it, Master Sgt. Minnie Hiller-Cousins, who has spent 29 years in the Guard and herself was deployed to Iraq in 2005, at age 50.

Sergeant Hiller-Cousins has created a game room for kids that Brandon Roldan loves to visit; a food pantry where families can stock up; a support group for teenagers that Thomas, Jasmine and Kenya Jefferson attend, and one for spouses that their mother goes to; trips for the families to nearby amusement parks; and this winter, a cruise to the Caribbean. “The key is to keep them busy, take their minds off what’s going on over there,” she said.

Even before the soldiers left, she formed a committee of spouses to welcome them back.

But what makes Sergeant Hiller-Cousins most effective is that she gets both the battlefront and home front. She knows these families are largely upwardly mobile working- and middle-class people who admire the uniform, but also joined looking for that second paycheck, a military pension, college benefits and the $20,000 signing bonus that could go toward a down payment on a house. Sergeant Hiller-Cousins, the mother of grown triplets, says she never could have afforded her bachelor’s or master’s degrees, if it weren’t for the G.I. Bill. Nor, she said, would she have her civilian job, as a counselor and court liaison to Passaic County schools.

Soldiers and spouses trust her.

When the Jeffersons’ marriage wobbled, Sergeant Hiller-Cousins counseled both. “At one point, I had one on my office phone, one on my cell,” she said.

She told them that she knows, she understands, she’s been there. When she returned from Iraq, she said, she was jumpy and withdrawn. To avoid friends, she worked all the time. At one point her husband came up behind her to give a hug, and, startled, she wheeled around and punched him in the chest, knocking him over. In 2007, at her daughter Sherese’s insistence, she put herself in counseling. “I’ll let you in on a little secret,” she said. “I’m still in counseling.”

Among the families, it’s not hard to find a variety of views on the Iraq war. John Roldan supports it, while Mrs. Roldan is opposed. The Jeffersons say they have no opinion. Iris Walls is against it, while her husband, Gregg, gave a classic soldier’s answer. (“I have a job to do, I signed up knowing this could happen, so I’ll deal with it.”)

While Mrs. Jefferson hunts every piece of war news she can find, Mrs. Roldan purposely avoids the news. Asked if she felt more at ease since the troop surge appeared to have reduced violence, Mrs. Roldan said, “I don’t know much about it.”

The news they all crave is the call home, which can come at any time. “I don’t leave my house without my cellphone,” Mrs. Roldan said. “I go to the bathroom with my cellphone. Everything I do – I sleep with my cellphone.”

During Mr. Jefferson’s first deployment, the family’s home computer was set at maximum volume for incoming messages. “We had this dragon or devil or whatever it is that would roar, and the kids would get excited ” ‘Daddy’s online!’ – and we would run into the room,” said Mrs. Jefferson.

Being able to speak to a soldier in the midst of war is miraculous, but a mixed blessing, too, as any parent knows. Children live in the moment, and trying to engage them by phone is often discouraging. When Sergeant Roldan was in Texas, about to deploy, he called home to Brandon, who is now 5.

“What you doing?” asked Sergeant Roldan.

“Nothing,” said Brandon.

“What are you going to do today?”


“O.K., Loquito. I love you mucho.”


“I miss you.”


“I love you, bye.”

“O.K., bye.”

Mr. Jefferson joined the National Guard in July 2004, and a month later got a call saying he was being mobilized. It was still rare then for Guard units to go abroad. “This is exactly what they said,” he recalled. “‘Jefferson, we need you to come on down to Fort Dix, you’re being mobilized for Iraq.’ I said: ‘Excuse me, but I’m a National Guardsmen. You mean Iraq, New Jersey?’ “

Mr. Walls, the accountant, joined in 2005, in part, he said, because he was looking to add some excitement to his life, without disrupting his family too much. He knew mobilization was possible, but he and the recruiter, a friend, figured it was far off, because New Jersey soldiers had just returned from Iraq. “He told me the deployment was coming up, I think it was in 2010, 2011,” Mr. Walls said. “We figured we had a few years, Mr. Bush would be out of office, things would be different.”

When he got his deployment notice, his wife, Iris, was so angry, he said, she was speechless. “Ever try to sleep beside someone so angry that her anger keeps you up?” Mr. Walls said.

When she could finally talk, it wasn’t good. “I started crying and yelling, ‘What are you going to do?’ Mrs. Walls said. “I just sat on the couch – ‘This cannot be happening, this is crazy.'”

Her mother called Mr. Walls’s decision to join the Guard selfish, but Mrs. Walls felt differently. Several years before, when she had been unhappy working as a bookkeeper, he had encouraged her to quit and pursue her love, real estate. He assured her that they could live off his salary until she was established.

She now works full time at real estate, does well, and loves it. “He supported me,” she said. “I’m his wife and I love him, and I have a family with him. I’m willing to deal with this. We have to make it work.”

IN June, when Mr. Roldan left for two months of training in Texas, Brandon cried for days, but eventually grew accustomed to his father’s absence. Mrs. Roldan didn’t want to reawaken that sadness, so in August, when the soldiers got a final four-day pass before shipping to Iraq, she traveled to Texas alone. She bought a new dress, did her hair and nails, and, though she flew in flip-flops, was wearing high heels when she stepped off that plane. “John noticed,” she said.

They spent their time with two other military couples, staying out late at clubs, drinking and dancing, then meeting in the Holiday Inn lobby for breakfast at 9:30 each morning, as if they had no children or cares.

But like Cinderella, the soldiers held passes that expired at midnight, on Aug. 29.

“I would not let go,” Mrs. Roldan said. “He was telling me, ‘I have a minute more, I have a minute more,’ and I just didn’t care. I didn’t want to let him go.

“I hugged and I kissed him and just told him to be safe and to be back because I know my two kids need him and I need him to be a family again.”

By the time she got back to New Jersey, it was Saturday night and all she wanted was to sleep, but Brandon was so excited to see her, she had to let that go. “I played with him and talked to him and he had a lot of questions, and I answered every question he had.” Mother and son didn’t get to bed until 1 a.m.

Brandon keeps asking when his Daddy will be home, but he is too young to understand how long a year feels, so Mrs. Roldan explains by using the holidays. “Right now, he’s waiting for Halloween,” Mrs. Roldan said. “He knows Halloween is pretty soon. And then there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas and his birthday. He didn’t know about what Valentine’s is, but then there’s Easter and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and finally, his Daddy will be there.”

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