They Called, I Answered. It Got to Me.

By Kayt Sukel
Sunday, September 21, 2008


When my husband deployed to Iraq for the second time in April, he left me responsible for the following things: our 3-year-old son, our finances and his company-level family readiness group, or FRG.

The last is the Army's reinvention of the old-school military family support group. The informal, potluck-supper and sympathy-casserole model that had prevailed during past conflicts wasn't going to cut it for the long, frequent deployments of Operation Iraqi Freedom. So the Army created the FRG, an official, solidly regulated organization run by family volunteers, with the dual goal of supporting both families and the military mission.

I'd be lying if I said that the idea of leading the FRG hadn't held some initial appeal. During my husband's first sojourn in the Iraqi desert in 2003, I'd thought the organization was poorly managed. So when Nick got his first command a little more than two years ago, I was happy to take the group's helm, as the commander's wife traditionally does. I knew I could do better.

But that was before the telephone calls started.

"You got the president of the United States on the news saying that deployments are now only going to be a year. Why doesn't that apply to us?"

From a distance, it looked simple enough. The FRG leader training class at our small post in Germany clearly laid out my mission. I was to be a referral and information service, to help spouses navigate the Army bureaucracy and let them know what services were available to them. If someone needed a ride to the commissary, I'd provide the post's daily shuttle schedule. If someone had a complaint about her husband's supervisor making him work long hours, I would gently remind her that it was a "green-suit," or Army, issue that her husband would need to take up the chain of command. I was to make it plain that there were appropriate ways to address issues. I wasn't a direct conduit to the top just because I happened to share a bed with the guy in charge.

I was there to help organize bake sales to provide funds for unit T-shirts or holiday events. I was there to help plan kid-friendly trips to the local zoo and barbecues to keep morale up while the soldiers were away. I was there to make sure that new families got the handy-dandy welcome binder and to recruit and direct volunteers. And I was there to activate our phone tree, so that critical information from the commander about events, deployments or, in the worst case, a soldier's injury or death, was respectfully communicated to each and every spouse.

But unmistakably, I was not to get overly involved.

"Think of yourself as the policeman directing traffic at an intersection," the instructor told us. "That policeman doesn't pull or push cars across the crossroads. He doesn't allow the cars to get too close. He merely directs, allowing those cars to move ahead on their own steam." She did not, however, address how to handle situations when the cars ran out of steam, beyond telling us, "Know that it's okay to say, 'This is not an FRG issue' and end it there."

"He didn't come home last night. My friend said she saw him out with another woman at the clubs."

I'd heard the horror stories of FRG leaders who were stressed to the point of breaking. Rumors abounded about the wife of one former commander who cried before and after every monthly FRG meeting, overwhelmed by all that the families expected of her.

That would not be me. After years in the corporate world as an information-technology consultant, I knew how to delegate and how to distance myself to get the job done. Dealing with a few dozen Army wives and their families may not have been strictly analogous, but it seemed to me that the same rules applied. And if I stuck to the rules, there was no way, no how, I'd get sucked into the drama.

But I got sucked into the drama.

"My ex-husband won't let my daughter come live with us. Not that he wants to take care of her, he just wants to punish me. I don't know how I'm supposed to get by for 15 months without my husband or my child."

During my husband's tenure as commander from 2006 to 2007, we weathered rumors of a new deployment, a chlamydia outbreak among our unit's soldiers and some of their wives, spousal abuse, drugs, and more family financial issues than I could ever have imagined. Sometimes I was able to help, directing families to Army agencies that could fix their pay problems, help them find child care or provide career counselors to soup up resumes. But before I could take some satisfaction in actually having lent a hand, the phone would ring again.

There were calls about why my husband was making soldiers work late, about self-esteem issues, about shameless catfights and adultery. Once a spouse called to request that my husband instruct hers to impregnate her -- if he fell in the line of duty, a child would be her only consolation. There were too many situations for which the FRG leaders handbook offered no solution except the forbidding "This is not an FRG issue," a statement that only left spouses feeling as though the Army, the same Army that was taking their husbands away for years at a time, didn't care about their problems -- or them.

Over time, I started doing the only thing I could: I took the time to listen. After a few months, all those promises I'd made to myself fell by the wayside. I was stressed out. I took things personally. I took on too much. And the question always remained: Was it doing any good?

I really didn't know. But soon I dreaded walking around post during hours when I was likely to run into people who would criticize the way the Army (and my husband) did business or who would unload personal problems. Too often I "forgot" to charge my cellphone. I postponed e-mail replies as long as I dared. I started to dream of being unreachable.

"He won't mind me no matter what I say. He only listens to his daddy. I'm at the end of my rope. Could you maybe watch him for a while?"

When my husband took a second command at a new U.S. post here, this time a larger headquarters company that was definitely going to deploy to Iraq, I knew that I hadn't fared any better than my predecessors. The job took its pound of flesh. I didn't think I had it in me to do it again. But Nick asked me to anyway. "With you, I'll know things are taken care of back here," he said. "It would make things easier on me." I couldn't refuse.

Now, a few months into a 15-month deployment already raw with the loss of some soldiers to battle, the phone seems to be constantly ringing. So many different voices, with so many problems. They tell me they heard, they lost, they hope, they want, they fear, they don't understand, they wish and they need. Always, they need. They know that I probably won't be able to help -- that I can only refer them to Army services stretched thin by this war, tell them to ignore any rumor that hasn't been officially confirmed by the unit, or maybe offer a little encouragement. But still they call. Sometimes dozens a day.

"I haven't heard from him in over two weeks. And I wouldn't ask, but is there some way to get a message to him? Our last call didn't go so well."

I've long since stopped blaming them for coming to me. Isn't it only natural for people to push back when they feel powerless, even if only to be noticed? And it feels just as natural for me to take the time to listen, even if all I'm doing is letting them know that their problems matter. That they -- as much as their soldiers -- matter.

But as I listen to each one, I wonder: How long can I keep this up? I'm not exempt from deployment's burdens. I, too, worry about how to manage all the balls I have in the air -- my child, my work running a writing business and, not least, my concerns about my husband at war.

"Once he got to Iraq, he changed all the bank accounts. Now he's only sending me a couple hundred dollars a month. How am I supposed to live on that?"

My husband will change out of this command next year, and I've decided to turn over the FRG reins when he does. Though we're months away from the handover date, my replacement has asked me what she can do to prepare, to make sure that she's ready for the job. I find myself somewhat stymied by the question.

Now I often lie awake and wonder what an FRG leader could do to really empower these spouses, really make a difference as they try to find their way in their husbands' absence. Had I remained aloof, an untouchable traffic cop who called only to remind people about bowling night or to solicit baked-goods donations, would it have been better for everyone? I don't know. It seems that I'm just not traffic-cop material. And with some predicting that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan may continue for another 10 years or more, I have to wonder, when faced with the diverse and complex needs of military families, whether anyone really could be.

Kayt Sukel is a freelance writer.

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