Facebook brings the Afghan war to Fort Campbell

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 12:13 AM

AT FORT CAMPBELL, KY. Emily Franks was playing with her toddler when a soldier called from Afghanistan with devastating news.

A massive roadside bombing had killed five soldiers from her husband's 120-man infantry company. The soldier was calling Franks, who was at the center of a wives' support network, in violation of a military-imposed communications blackout on the unit.

Using an Afghan cellphone, he told Franks that her husband was safe, but that the company commander was probably dead.

Franks's cellphone beeped. Kitty Hinds, the company commander's wife, was calling.

"I gotta go," Franks told the soldier.

She was sure that Hinds was going to tell her that her husband had been killed. Hinds, however, was oblivious to the events 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. It was a perfect afternoon and she was driving her three boys home from baseball camp.

Franks struggled to mask the dread in her voice. Her pulse raced as she said goodbye. "It was horrid," she recalled. "Absolutely horrid."

To ensure that a service member's family does not receive the news of a death by e-mail, phone or an errant Facebook posting, the military temporarily shuts down Internet access to deployed units that suffer a fatality. In today's era of ever-present connections, such blackouts are rarely enough to cut off the flow of information.

Only hours after the explosion on Monday, June 7, the news that something terrible had happened spread among the three dozen wives of Gator Company through social-media sites and text messages. Worried spouses called the battalion's rear-detachment headquarters at Fort Campbell, searching for news. They posted prayers on Facebook. They scoured the Internet for scraps of information about their husbands' fates.

With each successive year of war, new technologies and social-media sites have narrowed the distance between the home front and the frontlines. In the early days of the Afghan war - before Facebook existed - troops typically e-mailed home a few times a week. They called even less frequently.

Today spouses and troops, based in even the most remote areas of Afghanistan, can trade messages and phone calls dozens of times a day. In good times, the minute-by-minute status updates provide peace of mind.

In moments of crisis, the connectivity can make the looming possibility of death seem almost suffocating. The spouses jump with each phone call. Ringing doorbells spark tremors of terror.

Franks and her husband, Michael, had already weathered a tough Iraq tour in 2008. She thought she knew what it was like to live with the anxiety of having a love one deployed in a dangerous place.

On June 7, she would learn how much had changed in just two years.

The Army funnels information to the spouses of deployed soldiers through volunteer-run Family Readiness Groups, which evolved from now-defunct officer and enlisted wives clubs. Typically the responsibility of running the Gator Company group would have fallen to Hinds, the company commander's wife. A bit anxious by nature, she was reluctant to take on the job alone.

A few weeks before Gator Company left for their deployment in eastern Afghanistan's Konar province, Hinds asked Franks to help her lead the group. Franks, 31, who has short, no-nonsense blonde hair and a dusting of freckles, was older than most of the other spouses. She seemed quiet and calm. "She just kind of took things in," Hinds said. "She wasn't too eager."

Franks met Michael at a small Christian college in Tennessee and dated him for two years in the late 1990s before losing touch. In 2006, he tracked her down on MySpace. He had recently enlisted in the Army, and asked Franks to drive down from Charlottesville, Va. to visit him at Fort Bragg, N.C., his first duty station.

"The whole drive down I was thinking, 'How am I going to tell this guy I am not interested?' " said Franks, who had a job she loved coordinating high school trips to the Grand Canyon. "As soon as I saw Michael again, all of that was out the window."

Three weeks later, he casually floated the possibility of marriage. "Sounds good," she replied.

Franks was pregnant when Michael left for his first Iraq combat tour in September 2007, a 15-month stint during which his best friend was killed by a sniper.

Franks quickly became Gator Company's go-to person for help with problems ranging from car trouble to child care. "Everyone knows they can rely on Emily," one of the Gator Company wives said. "She almost makes it too easy."

The June 7 attack took place only a few weeks into the deployment. When the bomb struck, it was about 3 a.m. at Fort Campbell. By mid-morning the wives had begun to realize that something was wrong.

Many of the spouses were accustomed to getting calls from their husbands via cellphone and Skype in the morning. No one received a call on the morning of June 7. None of the soldiers was on Facebook. The unit was in blackout.

Seana Arrechaga, the 22-year-old wife of a Gator Company soldier, began checking and re-checking the iCasualties.org Web site, which compiles the latest information on war fatalities from press releases and news reports. In the morning the site listed only one NATO fatality for the day. By late afternoon it was reporting that a roadside bomb had killed five soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. Arrechaga tried to call her husband's cellphone. There was no answer.

By early evening, the news that several soldiers had died was out. The Gator Company wives scoured Facebook for signs that their husbands were safe. They called the officers at Fort Campbell, who were prohibited from saying anything until the dead soldiers' next of kin had all been notified in person. It was an agonizingly slow process. First the military had to track down the relatives of the deceased across the country. Then chaplains and officers trained to deliver the news drove to their doorsteps, a ritual that the military considers sacred.

As the wives waited, they calculated the grim odds: Five dead in a company of 120 soldiers.

Franks planned to have a few wives from the company over for dinner Monday evening. Her first impulse after receiving the 12:30 p.m. call about the deaths had been to cancel. She wasn't supposed to have received the backchannel notification, and she worried that she wouldn't be able to hide the information from the others. Eventually, she concluded that calling off the dinner would raise more worry.

At Franks' house, she and two other wives talked briefly about the blackout and then tried to shift to happier subjects. After dinner Franks and Rachel Horton, 25, whose husband is a sergeant in Gator Company, were sitting on the couch. "The Bachelor" played on the television. Franks was urging Horton not to lose sight of her own career aspirations amid the constant deployments and moves that make up military life.

Around 9 p.m. Franks took a call from a close friend of one the first widows to be notified.

"Oh God, not her," Franks said. Savannah Jirtle, who was five months' pregnant, had just been told that her husband, Spec. Charles "Scott" Jirtle, and four other unnamed Gator Company soldiers had been killed. She wanted Franks to come to her house.

Franks needed a baby sitter, but she quickly realized she couldn't ask Horton to watch her two-year-old son. Horton's husband and Scott Jirtle were both part of the company's headquarters element, which consisted of about a dozen soldiers.

The headquarters soldiers almost always traveled together in the same three or four vehicles. One of those vehicles had been incinerated. The odds that Horton's husband was dead had dramatically increased.

"You need to go home," Franks told her.

She found another spouse from an unaffected unit to watch her son. When Franks arrived at the Jirtle home at around 10 p.m., the new widow and two friends from the unit were waiting in the driveway.

A few miles away, Horton's hands shook as she steered her car through Fort Campbell. At home, she tried to watch television, but couldn't concentrate. Around 10:30 p.m. she grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and sat on the cement step out front. She waited there until midnight, the hour at which the Army stops notifying next of kin of a fatality.

Then she went inside and logged onto Facebook.

"Worst night ever," Jirtle had written at 10:42 p.m. "Thought this would never happen."

"Its horrible. Theres to many rumors going around," Deniece Lukeala wrote at 12:06 a.m. "I really hope that all is well and that I hear from josh."

"Just remember that no news is good news!" replied Horton. Because it was after midnight, she assumed that Lukeala's husband had probably survived.

But Lukeala was visiting relatives in California, where it was two hours earlier. Shortly after her Facebook posting, an Army officer and a chaplain arrived to tell her that her husband, Sgt. Joshua A. Lukeala, was dead.

Capt. John Peters, the battalion's rear-detachment commander at Fort Campbell, had spent Monday night and the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday fielding calls from Gator Company wives and parents.

By 6 a.m. Tuesday, the Army was still racing to find two of the next of kin. Peters called Hinds, the company commander's wife, to ask for her help in calming the spouses.

The first reports in Afghanistan - and the soldier's call to Franks - placed Hinds' husband among the dead. But those reports were wrong.

At the last minute, Hinds' husband and First Sgt. Robert N. Barton, the senior enlisted soldier in the company, decided to switch places. The company commander took the northern patrol. Barton drove south toward the roadside bomb.

News of his death hit Facebook before his wife was formally notified.

Around 10:30 a.m. Peters' superiors decided to release the names of the dead to the Gator Company wives and parents. One next of kin still had not been located. But officers at Fort Campbell decided they needed to ease the panic.

The Army relies on phone trees run by the wives to spread the word. Franks spent most of the day on the phone with spouses and parents. "First off your soldier is safe," she began. "However, I have some bad news I need to give you." At that point, Franks was supposed to read an official script listing the names of the dead before moving on to the next family.

But almost everyone wanted to talk. They wanted to know how their son and the other soldiers were responding to the tragic news. What was the Army doing to help soldiers cope? Would the surviving soldiers have to go back out on patrol the next day?

"People were just grieving and needed a sounding board," Franks said. A few of her 75 calls lasted a half hour.

As she was working through her call list, the blackout was lifted. Franks' husband, Michael, contacted her via a Skype video call from Afghanistan. He looked physically and emotionally drained.

"How are you doing?" she asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," he replied. "I can't talk about it." He said he needed to focus on the war and taking care of his soldiers.

In the days that followed Franks found it almost impossible to talk to her husband. He wanted his wife to take his mind off the Army and Afghanistan, but she couldn't do it. The war, widows and memorial services were consuming her life.

"When all you have done from the beginning of the day to the end of the day is phone calls, e-mails, people freaking out and trying to take care of these widows - taking them meals, checking in on them or just sitting with them - there is nothing left to talk about," she said.

In the days that followed, the Gator Company spouses restocked the battalion's freezer with lasagnas, chicken nuggets, frozen pancakes and waffles so that they would have plenty of food for the wives of the next casualties. They met as a group to talk about how they were handling the deaths.

On June 13 - six days after the bombing - Franks attended Sunday worship at Christ Presbyterian Church, a plain, steeple-less sanctuary off Interstate 24 in Clarksville, Tenn. It was her first moment of peace since the attack.

After the service Franks was talking with other church-goers when the wife of an officer in another battalion approached her.

"I just realized that those five guys were your guys," the woman said.

Although Franks didn't know the woman especially well, she hugged her closely and began to sob. She had choked up a few times in the six days since the attack, but had never really been overcome with emotion. The sudden tears caught her by surprise.

"For the first time that week," Franks recalled, "I didn't have to be strong."

The company suffered more deaths in June. Franks and the other spouses wondered whether the run would ever stop.

On July 8, Franks was shopping with her mother-in-law at an Ikea in Atlanta when she got a call telling her the company had taken another fatality and that she needed to return to Fort Campbell. "I am assuming that since you are calling me that we are not talking about my husband," Franks said.

"I can't tell you that" the caller replied. "I don't have a name."

Franks dropped her mother-in-law at her home, promising to call as soon as she knew Michael was safe. Franks then picked up her mother, who at the time lived just north of Atlanta. Even if Michael was okay, she knew the next day would be consumed with calls, e-mails and visits. She needed her mother to watch her son.

Franks lives in a cramped, 1970s-era apartment a few miles from the Fort Campbell main gate. Bicycles hang from hooks in her dining room. Taped to the wall by the front door is Michael's hand-written packing list for Afghanistan.

As Franks pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex that evening she spotted an unfamiliar black sedan in front of her building.

"Please God, don't let there be anyone in that car," she said to herself. "Please God. Please God."

Franks drove slowly past the sedan to make sure it was empty. She didn't tell her mother about the scare until the next morning. "I can't believe you have to deal with this," her mother said. "Do you really want to stay in the military?"

Her mother urged Franks to move back home until Michael returned from Afghanistan. Franks declined. She needed to be around the other military wives.

"My friends outside of the Army - even my mom - don't understand," she said. "I love them, but they are in a different world."

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