When Mom Is Over There

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

I am driving a hulking Expedition with a yellow ribbon on the bumper that says "Support Our Troops." In the grocery store parking lot, a man nods at me. I'm walking to the shopping carts when it hits me. He thinks I'm a kindred spirit in a country that is losing its nerve. I should turn back and tell him that the truck isn't mine, to clear up his misconception, but I don't.

For one week I find myself pulled into the war effort. I am in Florida to help my brother juggle single parenthood while his wife is serving in Iraq. Jim lives in a cul-de-sac community outside Tampa where the garage doors flip up every night at 6 and swallow incoming cars. His girls are 10 and 9. We spend the week eating Cocoa Pebbles and watching "The Incredibles." We hold dance parties in a bedroom where the stuffed animals are giving way to dreamy teen idol posters. We go to the mall and to the dentist. One night while I make dinner, the girls ride bikes outside in the waning winter dusk. It is a relief to be away from Washington, where politicians in marble hallways proclaim righteousness though they have never carried a canteen. Here in this linoleum kitchen, there is just a crayon calendar on the refrigerator marking the days until Mama comes home.

The yellow ribbon on the truck is the most outward sign of where this family stands on the war. And, of course, the quiet absence of Master Sgt. Angela Hull from the house.

In a breathless choreography of necessity, my brother cooks, cleans, folds mountains of laundry, carpools, grocery-shops, works full time as a technical writer for a defense contractor and tries to distract his daughters with amusing weekend activities like Celebration Station. He is trying to distract himself as much as the girls. "Worrying is not productive," he says. Normally, I would tease him about such a statement. I would make a case for worry and why it's only human. But I don't dare now. I am too in awe of his composure. One morning I go into his bedroom closet to get the laundry and I'm greeted by the scent of Angela's perfume, still on her clothes. I touch her blouses. How does he do it?

Angela is chief controller of the air-traffic control tower at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq. She did not graduate from the Air Force Academy or come from a long line of military heroes. Angela was 22 and working at the Stouffer's frozen-food factory in her home town of Gaffney, S.C., in 1987 when she rebelled against the smallness of her life and joined the Air Force. She advanced the slow, hard way, from refueling aircraft at 30,000 feet to learning air-traffic control to commanding towers. In Kirkuk, she supervises 10 controllers in the base tower while serving as first sergeant to a squadron of 48.

Angela never uses the macho language of war or the slogans favored by those who took us there. She works 16 hours a day, six days a week and sleeps in a pod. In a photo she sent home, I can see her office and a chalkboard where someone in her unit has written, "Sgt. Hull, take a day off!" She earns $54,000 a year.

I don't know where Angela stands on the war because we never talk about it. I remember once when Jim, Angela and the girls came to visit me in Washington not long after the United States invaded Iraq. It was a cold spring weekend, wet and gray, but we were excited tourists. We walked down to the White House to take pictures. Crossing through Lafayette Square, we came upon an antiwar protest. There were people shouting and jabbing signs in the air, and one of the sticks hit my niece, frightening her. I was furious at the protester, at the carelessness of his selfish passion. My brother, who is 6 feet 6 inches tall, wanted to slug the guy. Angela -- calm and strong Angela -- simply rounded us up and moved us along.

* * *

Jim says it's good to keep a routine. The week of my visit, the holiday lights blink in the darkened Florida balm. Palm fronds brush against the plastic snowmen and wise men propped up in the cool night grass. At the kitchen table, my nieces dream up Christmas lists to e-mail to their mother, as if she will trudge out into the sands of Iraq and find a Wal-Mart.

Jourdan is 10 and long-legged. My brother seems not to notice that she is wearing cocktail outfits to school. Jourdan is spending hours in front of the mirror, hypnotized by her own reflection as Hilary Duff and Kelly Clarkson channel messages to her at ear-shattering decibels.

In the bedroom next door, childhood still reigns supreme. Chrislyn is barely 9 and a devout fan of SpongeBob and teddy bears that she names Zack and Champ. Chrislyn is as earnest and innocent as Jourdan is sophisticated and enterprising.

When Angela received her orders for Iraq last spring, my brother boiled down the situation this way: "There are bad people over there trying to hurt Americans and Iraqis," he said. "Mommy has special gear that keeps her safe." The girls were accustomed to Angela leaving for short stints but they knew this was different. In the way that children often seize on a grain of sand, they fixated on Angela's living quarters. "Will you sleep in a hard tent?" Chrislyn asked, her blue eyes clouded by worry. Angela promised that she would be sleeping in a very hard tent. On the morning of her departure, the girls went to school and Angela went to Iraq.

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