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Separated by War, Joined in Purpose

Army Commander Overseas, Wife in Va. Rally for Families

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page A01

Between them, husband and wife, there is nearly 7,000 miles, yet they remain partners in a job of watching over, counseling, consoling and guiding soldiers and their families through a time of war.

Capt. Mark J. Nelson, commander of a Virginia Army National Guard unit, left for Afghanistan on July 15. His wife, Michelle, remains at home in Northern Virginia, looking after their three daughters, ages 2, 7 and 13 -- and the 225 families of the other soldiers of the unit who were deployed with her husband.

Michelle Nelson runs the Family Readiness Group, which supports relatives of Army National Guard soldiers from a Winchester unit serving overseas. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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They communicate each day by phone, e-mail or both. Michelle Nelson, 33, is coordinator of the Family Readiness Group, which was activated at the same time the troops were. She puts in at least five hours a day helping families sort through everything from loneliness to life insurance. So far this year, 26 Family Assistance Centers across Virginia have been in contact with 5,614 family members of Army National Guard soldiers.

"I think the group is important for many reasons," Michelle Nelson said. "Everybody knows they have a place to go if they have questions. And questions come up every day. Rumors come up constantly, and they look to somebody to find out the answers."

She was at home one recent day. The television was on in the living room, tuned to CNN. "You can tell a military home," she laughed, "because we are always paying attention to the crawl, looking for anything new from over there." She talked as she tended to her 2-year-old daughter, the sound of the news anchor drowned out by the constant ringing of her cell and home phones.

She said she has been fortunate because she has been able to talk to her husband by phone every day, speaking by satellite phone on a connection as clear as if he were calling from down the street.

"This is not your grandfather's war," she said.

Mark Nelson, 38, is full-time National Guard, but those serving under him in the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, out of Winchester are insurance agents, farmers, butchers, teachers, lawyers -- men from all walks of life from all over Virginia. Some are newlyweds, some have become fathers while they have been deployed in Afghanistan and have never seen their children. It is almost a surreal existence, fighting in a war zone and yet being able to call home as if you are at the office to talk over finances, child care and every other family matter.

Nelson, in an interview conducted via e-mail, said part of his job in the war zone is making sure that his soldiers stay connected to families back home, and that means he must stay connected to those serving under him and keep up with what's going on in their lives.

"This is accomplished across the entire chain of command," Nelson said. "Soldiers have to call/write home to their families they are OK. If you have to jump on a helicopter and do a battlefield circulation to see your troops, you do that. They need to see you, to know you are looking out for them. You ask [them] how they are doing, how's your wife, how's the kids, did you buy that house, etc. You share in their excitement, joy, suffering and so forth. They have to know that everything they do and happens to them matters to you."

"Dh [deployed husband] has only been gone a month now and I feel like I'm going to go crazy. He won't be back till Jan-Feb of 2006. I miss him so much already. Does it get easier?" Posted last week in chat room by "Cav Wife."

In addition to family support groups like the one run by Michelle Nelson, Internet chat rooms allow the family members of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq to find each other and to share their frustrations, fears and loneliness and offer encouragement to one another.

One chat room is called Whine and Cheese and gives families a place to vent to a safe, friendly and understanding audience. Some chatters sign their messages with such salutations as "Missing the love of my life since 11/20/03."

Cav Wife didn't have to wait long for a response to her appeal for advice. "The first two months are the hardest," one chatter replied. "The last two months are the easiest. . . . It is actually worse for the deployed soldier. Don't watch the news. He'll be fine; you'll be fine. If your relationship was strong when he left, it will be stronger when he returns."

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