Special Reports

War on terror is war on loneliness for soldiers' families

Nobody would blame military members and their families if they called it Operation Enduring Separation. Soldiers and airmen from Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base already were stretched across the globe before America launched its response to Sept. 11. Time away from home is part of the deal in today's all-volunteer force.

But since the onset of the war on terrorism, life in the military has meant more, and longer, deployments.

"It's been pretty tough on a lot of people," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Heather Harp, whose husband, Ken, is an Air Force staff sergeant stationed at McChord.

"People realize we have a job to do, but it's tough when you have to try to get across to my son why his dad isn't here," she said.

The couple are among hundreds of McChord service men and women who've spent long stints away at bases around the world since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Local military units deployed since Sept. 11 included a field hospital team that treated combat casualties in Afghanistan, military police sent to protect East Coast installations, and Special Forces soldiers sent to Afghanistan and the Philippines.

A Special Forces soldier from Fort Lewis, Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman, was the first U.S. serviceman killed by hostile fire in Afghanistan.

Fort Lewis MPs are guarding al-Qaida detainees in Cuba, and Army journalists from the post are at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, putting out the daily newspaper for U.S. forces.

From the onset of the war in October through early March, the Harps were together about eight days. They sent their son, K.C., who turns 5 this month, back to Indiana to stay with her parents from September through May.

They drove cross-country to be with him at his preschool graduation and bring him home. But then for two weeks in July, Heather was away at school, and a few days after she returned, her husband headed back out to the war. He's due home in a few weeks.

The Harps, who are 28, re-enlisted after the onset of hostilities last fall.

Heather Harp said her co-workers in the 62nd Aircraft Generation Squadron pull together to help each other get through it. She's grateful her commander has moved her into a job where it's less likely she'll be deployed.

Enrollment is up in assistance programs the Army offers for families at home, said Ned Cronin, director of Army Community Services at Fort Lewis.

They teach family members everything from how to read a military leave and earnings statement to what they can expect when their soldier returns from a deployment.

"I think the families here have held up really well," Cronin said.

Fort Lewis has put technology to work to help some soldiers and their families cope with separation. If a soldier is someplace where the Army can install an ISDN line, he or she can arrange a video teleconference with loved ones back home at Fort Lewis.

Cronin said he's arranged 150 "VTCs" for soldiers stationed across the United States, in the Balkans, Korea, Germany and elsewhere. U.S. troops in Afghanistan have the gear, but they haven't used it to "visit" with their families back home, Cronin said.

With time and distance between them, it means a lot for a spouse to see and hear their soldier. Children especially love to see Mom or Dad on TV, he said.

"I think it really helps keep families together," Cronin said.

Still, the separation has been especially profound for National Guardsmen and reservists. Some of the 1,500 or so Washington Guardsmen and reservists who were called up soon will begin their second year on active duty.

"It was difficult at first, the whole adjustment," said Tina Clayton of DuPont, whose husband, Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Clayton, has been away with his Washington National Guard information operations unit since late October.

Clayton is tough, a former Marine Corps truck driver who takes care of 10 children at her in-home day care. She has three teenage daughters.

Mostly she's missed "just having him around to do things with and to talk to, especially when my oldest was having boy problems."

"But faced with a situation you either rise or you fall, and since falling is not an option, you rise."

How long can everyone keep it up?

Ron Limes of Edgewood flies Boeing 737s for Alaska Airlines 15 or 16 days a month, then a C-17 for three or four more as a major in the Air Force Reserve.

In January he volunteered for one of the 12-day "commute to the war" missions that reservists are flying. They go to Germany, then make three or four runs with troops or equipment into Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region before returning home to their regular jobs.

Landing at Kandahar one day - grilling burgers in the back yard a couple of days later.

The Air Force is getting by with volunteers and hasn't had to activate reserve pilots from McChord, officials said. But they're flying a lot of missions, Limes said. One pilot just left for his ninth trip "down range."

"I think guys are looking forward to when the missions aren't so long, but as far as keeping up the pace, I think we'll do it until the job is done," Limes said. "There is a specific goal that our president and leaders have set for us. ... I think we can keep it up until the job is done."

Michael Gilbert: 253-597-8921