Beth Pratt hunched on a chair in the anonymous, fluorescent-lit exam room of a health clinic on Fort Bragg, N.C. It was a wintry day in early March, she remembers, and her dancer's body drooped with sadness. She picked at the skin around her fingernails.

The nurse practitioner rustled through the door. "So, what brings you in to us today?"

"Oh," said Beth and stopped. Her voice was thin and scratchy. She started again. "I'm having a really hard time with my husband gone." Her husband was deployed to Iraq five months before. "I think I'm really depressed." She started to cry. "I cry like this all the time. And I just want it to stop."

Beth remembers that the nurse practitioner nodded. She was older, with the calm, comforting air of a woman who has raised a whole brood of children and seen it all. She nudged Beth with the usual questions: Are you feeling any sense of hopelessness or helplessness? Have your sleeping habits changed? Have your eating habits changed? Have you lost weight? How about a change in sexual desire? Yes, Beth said to each question, struggling to get the word out, yes, yes, yes, and yes, adding to the last, "Actually I don't know, since my husband's not here." And her face crumpled again.

"Honey, have you had any suicidal thoughts?"

Beth didn't say anything. She just nodded.

"Do you have a plan? What are you thinking about?"

"I've been thinking," Beth said softly, "that if I had a gun, I'd shoot myself."

AROUND THE SAME TIME, on a back road on Fort Bragg, just a few miles from the health clinic, a gold hand-me-down sedan was doing 70 in a 55-mph zone when the blue and red lights came on behind it, forcing the driver, Marissa Bootes, to stop. It was midnight. The military policeman asked, "Do you know what speed you were going?"

"I have to get to the hospital," Marissa recalls saying. "My daughter woke up screaming that her head hurt. She has a temperature of almost 104; she's burning up. I'm afraid she might have that viral infection that's been going around, that kids have been dying of."

The MP flicked his flashlight over 5-year-old Lexie slumped in her seat. Her hair was wet with sweat, her cheeks flaming, the rest of her skin clammy and pale. The MP frowned, unconvinced. "I hope you're not lying to me."

"Look at me!" said Marissa. "I'm wearing sweats and I've got a sick kid in the back seat. Where else would I be going at 70 miles an hour in the middle of the night?"

He let her go -- he just asked her to do him a favor and slow down. Her husband was riding convoys in Iraq. Now their kid was sick. She wasn't slowing down for anybody. She hit the accelerator and sped the rest of the way to the Army hospital.

Five hours later, Lexie's temperature was headed back down, and they were dragging home. Before Marissa fell into bed, she says, she faxed the doctor's excuse to her supervisor at the law firm where she worked as a paralegal. She'd landed this job just before her husband was deployed four months earlier, and it was her dream job. But if she tried to drive to those 8 a.m. foreclosure hearings, she might just wrap the company car around a tree. The firm could get someone else to cover the hearings.

At 9, her supervisor was on the phone with one clear message: If those hearings happened without her, she was fired.

BOTH MARISSA BOOTES AND BETH PRATT ARE MARRIED to lower-level enlisted men in the 82nd Airborne Division. Beth's husband, Pvt. E-2 Luigi Pratt, drove Army trucks on convoys through Iraq's Sunni Triangle. On other convoys along those same roads, Marissa's husband, Spec. Charlie Bootes, manned a Mark-19 fully automatic grenade launcher.

Marissa and Beth have never met. Marissa, 24, grew up in foster homes, has a two-year college degree and is married to her high school sweetheart. On the subject of the war, she had no patience for Americans protesting in the streets; it killed morale, she said, made life harder for soldiers and their families. Beth, 34, had a happy childhood, holds multiple post-graduate degrees and is newly married for the second time, no children. As for the war, she believed it was wrong from the start. The U.N. weapons inspectors, it seemed to her, had been doing just fine. Beth and Marissa didn't have much in common except for this: In the fall of 2003, they both faced the frightening challenge of their husbands' first deployments.

A soldier whose family is struggling with deployment may have a hard time focusing on his or her job. In a combat zone, that's dangerous. Such soldiers may also suffer from low morale and may be less likely to reenlist. "You enlist soldiers," says retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lillie Cannon, who is married to a Fort Bragg Army colonel. "You retain families."

The idea that families are crucial to military readiness is now official policy in an era when according to a 2002 study by the Military Family Resource Center, half of all service members are married. But families haven't always been a priority at the Pentagon. During Vietnam, when young, single draftees served for two years and got out, only 25 percent were married. If a soldier lived on post with his family, when that soldier went to war, his family had to go live somewhere else.

Outside Fort Bragg in the 1960s, Joanne Hunt lived with her young son in Fayetteville, N.C., in the Dreamland Trailer Court, while her husband served three tours in Vietnam with Army Special Forces. "The place was full of women without husbands," she remembers. "They were all in Vietnam."

Every day, she says, a staff car would come through Dreamland, and the women would watch out their windows to see if it stopped at the trailer of a friend. If it did, they hurried over to comfort her, because her husband wasn't coming home again. They were all the support they had. The loneliness, the sense of isolation from the wider world, could seem unbearable. When Hunt thinks back on the Special Forces wives she knew from that time, she can't remember a single marriage that survived Dreamland. Including her own.

Hunt quotes an old saying: "If the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one. In my day, it was true. You had your ID card, you could shop the commissary and go to the hospital, but other than that, while your husband was deployed, the military had no more to do with you."

Military families owe the support they receive today in large part to women like Hunt. In the mid-'70s, as the Army shifted to an all-volunteer force, she participated in a family life symposium, an early effort to improve the Army's support for families. During the '80s, there was a family liaison office up at the Pentagon, and down at the unit level, commanders began organizing their soldiers' spouses into Family Readiness Groups.

The FRG volunteers pass information between the Army unit commander and the families and let families know where to find needed services. The other military services have similar programs, and they all rely on spouses who volunteer to help other spouses adjust to the military or a new duty station, prepare for deployment and then get through it.

For spouses, the initial couple of months of any first deployment are usually the toughest. Then, "families typically adjust and realize, I can take care of this, I can perform these roles," explains Lt. Col. Joseph Pecko, chief of the department of social work at Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg. "A lot of the problems we will see after that is when there is no breather, no respite for the spouse. The family moved here away from loved ones, and they really become isolated."

That's a peacetime deployment. A deployment in wartime raises the stakes. As casualties mounted in Iraq, the chaplains of the 82nd Airborne began to notice a wave of symptoms sweeping through the division's spouses -- depression, insomnia, shortness of breath, crying jags -- the same symptoms that people often experience after the death of a loved one. It's a common reaction among spouses during a wartime deployment, and it has a name -- anticipatory grief.

Fort Bragg and neighboring Pope Air Force Base make up one of the world's biggest military complexes. It alone bustles with more than 45,000 soldiers in the airborne and Special Forces. Before September 11, 2001, on any given day, there were 4,000 or 5,000 soldiers deployed out of Fort Bragg around the world. Two years later, that number had topped 24,000.

Families say goodbye here all the time.

BETH PRATT REMEMBERS WATCHING LUIGI GET HIS GEAR TOGETHER -- rain poncho, canteens, gas mask. It was September and it was cold, just before dawn outside his unit's big, brick headquarters. She was seeping tears. He was sweating. Another soldier, passing by, asked Beth, "He's not sick, is he?"

She shook her head. "He's okay. He just sweats when he's nervous."

Beth says Luigi walked her out to her white compact car in the parking lot. "I hate this war," she said. Whenever she said that, her voice took on the tone of a child who's been wronged. "I don't know why we had to go in there in the first place."

Luigi nodded. Then he said: "Uh-oh, they called formation. I got to go." A quick hug and a kiss, as if he were just going down the street, and then he was gone.

While Luigi and the other soldiers in his unit waited for the buses that would take them to the airfield at Pope, Beth says, she drove home to their tiny, rented duplex, where his surfboard leaned in a corner of the living room and her pink pointe shoes hung by their ribbons on the wall next to her drum kit, which she hadn't touched since moving here.

A few hours later, her cell phone rang. It was Camilla Maki, whose husband was a noncommissioned officer in Luigi's platoon. Maki was an FRG volunteer and Beth's contact on the families' phone tree. "Beth, you need to come out here to Green Ramp to see him before he leaves," she said.

Green Ramp was what passed for a waiting terminal at the airfield. Beth wiped her nose with a tissue. "I'm not up to it, really. Anyway, I thought we're not allowed to go to Green Ramp."

"Screw 'em," Camilla remembers saying, "come on."

By the time they got to Green Ramp, it was nearly noon and the other wives had been shooed away. Beth peered in the door of the hulking concrete-block building. Men in beige desert camouflage stood and sat on rows and rows of bleachers like drifts of sand, talking, reading, sleeping, killing time.

Someone yelled, "Pratt! Your wife's here!" and several rows over, Luigi jumped up. Beth recalls a surf magazine flapping open in his hand, his grin getting bigger and bigger the closer he came. "Oh my God!" He wrapped her in a bear hug. "You came back!"

She'd given him the magazine while he was packing. She'd written something on every page: I'm so lucky you showed up on my doorstep . . . You make my life complete . . . He'd already read them all. They stood there grinning at each other, his hands resting on her hips, her red-rimmed eyes almost level with his.

Eventually someone yelled: "Pratt! Get over here!" Beth hugged him, but he was wearing his Kevlar vest, and to her he felt awkwardly hard and inhuman. She turned away before he walked out the door to the plane.

A WEEK LATER, IT WAS MARISSA BOOTES'S TURN. The Bootes's prefab starter home is one of many in a neighborhood built right up against a tall, chain-link fence. On the other side of that fence is Fort Bragg. Some days, when Marissa walks out on the back deck, the sky is polka-dotted with parachutes, airborne troopers drifting silently down to the drop zone beyond the pine trees.

The alarm woke Marissa at 4 a.m. She slid out of bed without turning on the light. She says she showered and dressed fast, shoved files into her briefcase as she combed out her wet hair, but before she left the house, she remembers, she sat on the edge of the double bed and watched Charlie sleep.

He was supposed to be gone. Yesterday, at the last minute, the flight was postponed, and she called her supervisor at the law firm to ask if someone could please cover her hearings this morning so she could be there to say goodbye. But she got nowhere with the supervisor, and so here she was, stealing a few last minutes, watching him breathe.

He didn't wake up when she kissed him. "I love you," she whispered.

She recalls walking down the hall to Lexie's room and kissing her, too, before slipping back through the long strands of pink and purple crystals that hung in Lexie's doorway. They were still swaying and clicking when the front door closed.

THEY'D BEEN HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS in Erie, Pa., the blond boy-next-door and the daughter of a flower child and a Vietnamese refugee. Back then, Marissa was competing in beauty pageants for Hawaiian Tropic and making plans to go to college and law school. She wanted to work on behalf of neglected children. But then, she found out she was pregnant.

She shifted gears, decided to become a paralegal instead. Charlie worked the graveyard shift at a plastics assembly shop to put her through business college; she worked part time at a gas station, and their families helped watch Lexie during the day.

A few days after September 11, 2001, while the couple was on the couch in their trailer watching TV, Charlie said, "I'm thinking about joining the Army."

Marissa remembers exclaiming, "Oh my God, why would you join now?" But, really, she knew why. They weren't flying a flag, but they'd been talking about how patriotic they felt, like the whole country was in this together. "Is that really what you want to do?"

"I don't know what I want to do," Charlie says he told her. "All I know is, I'm killing myself on third shift. I'm working 70 hours a week and we're still living paycheck to paycheck. We're not going anywhere, Marissa."

They talked about it for a while. Beneath the chassis of the trailer, the wheels were blocked in place. Marissa looked at Charlie. "You're right," she said. "We need to get out of this town and never come back."

Within a year she'd finished school, he'd finished training, and they'd moved to Fayetteville and bought a house. Not long after that, Marissa landed a job with a big law firm out of Charlotte that sent her to county courthouses all over the eastern half of the state. It was high-pressure but high-paying. For the first time in their lives, they didn't have to worry about money.

BETH PRATT'S JOURNEY TOWARD FORT BRAGG BEGAN IN MINNESOTA. As soon as she got off the farm where she grew up, she went to college on a scholarship and didn't stop until she had earned degrees in biology, Spanish, nursing and forensic science. About the same time that Marissa was moving to Fayetteville, Beth was at a friend's house in South Florida, falling in love with an easygoing surfer just as he was leaving for basic training. Luigi Pratt, at 30, had joined the Army hoping to get money for college and to help out his immigrant mother with some steady income.

Beth worked as a nurse at a jail clinic. She says she was warned by one of the deputies who had served in the military, "You know he's going to get sent off, right?"

"Yeah," she said, "I know."

"It's not an easy life," she remembers him saying. "I don't know that you're going to like it that much."

She wasn't sure she would, either. But she'd been married before. Her first husband had never made her feel the way Luigi did, like she was a treasure he'd discovered, and she wasn't willing to give that up. So she sold the house she loved in Florida, married the man she loved more, and followed him to Fayetteville, leaving behind her job, her friends, her life.

In Fayetteville, she started knocking on doors, looking for a job in forensics. Nothing opened. She wound up settling for a nursing job in labor and delivery at the Army hospital on Fort Bragg, and she and Luigi began trying to start a family themselves. Within five months, they learned they needed treatment for infertility. Just as they were trying to overcome that blow, Luigi was sent to Iraq.

IN THE LABOR AND DELIVERY ROOMS AT THE ARMY HOSPITAL, a lot of the pregnant women were there with their mothers, sisters or girlfriends. The husbands were overseas -- gone to Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, Colombia.

Beth worked the overnight shift. Sometimes she'd walk into a delivery room to check on a patient and the TV would be turned to the news. She remembers always doing her best to get out of there before the newscast got around to the latest on the war in Iraq. While some military spouses are addicted to the news, some don't watch at all -- it just reinforces the fear.

Sometimes, in the nurse's station, Beth would listen while other nurses talked about the war, about how it was a good thing. She says she felt like asking them, Where are all those weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to be there? But she didn't have the nerve to disagree with them out loud, not in an Army hospital. She felt like enough of an outsider as it was.

When she got back home in the morning, she would push a videotape into the VCR and sit on the couch to watch. It was 10 minutes of Luigi surfing, goofing around on the beach, playing with their dog in the living room, taking a shower. "Show me your butt," her voice called, laughing, from behind the camera. Now she couldn't watch without reaching for a tissue.

MILITARY SPOUSES WHO'VE BEEN THROUGH A DEPLOYMENT always offer one standard piece of advice: Stay busy, but don't forget to take care of yourself. Marissa Bootes took only the first half of that advice. She had been nervous when Charlie left, afraid she wouldn't be able to juggle all the responsibilities without him. But a month into it, she had it all figured out, starting with when and where to cry.

She hadn't cried at all the first two weeks after she kissed him goodbye. Then one day it hit her, the fear that he wouldn't come back. Crying in the car, she'd arrive at a courthouse puffy-eyed and red-nosed; crying at night left her stuffy and headachy and unable to sleep, and sleep was important -- it was the only time her fear for him wasn't scratching somewhere at her brain. But in the shower she discovered she could bawl as long and as hard as she wanted and no one would hear, plus the steam kept her nose open and her eyes from getting puffy. So each morning, she says, she'd leave Lexie asleep in the double bed, get her cry out of the way and get on with her day. If later on the fear started to get to her again, she told herself that Charlie was doing work that had to be done, helping the United States fulfill its promise to the Iraqi people and making the world a better place. She found comfort in that.

One night after picking up Lexie from the babysitter, Marissa got back to the house around 9. She loved her new job as a paralegal, loved the challenge of ferreting out titles on foreclosed properties and then managing the real estate auctions on her own. She just wished the hours weren't so long. She says she felt guilty about being away from Lexie so much. She threw the bills from the mailbox onto the pile on the coffee table and charged around to feed the dog, scoop up an armload of dirty clothes from the bathroom floor and crank on the faucet for Lexie's shower.

Nothing happened. She tried the sink. Nothing.

She remembers running out into the cold and circling the house. The yard around the foundation was bone dry, no sign of a burst pipe. It was a mystery, but there was nothing she could do about it till morning. She tucked Lexie into bed and sat down at the computer in the dining room. At midnight, she was still working.

The next morning, wearing her cell phone headset as she raced between counties, she called the water company from the car. "I don't know why my water's shut off," she said. "Is there a problem in the area?"

"Let me check." There was a pause, then, "Uh, you know you didn't pay your bill?"

"But we always pay our bills -- " she began. Except it wasn't we who'd always paid them. It was Charlie. Marissa chewed her lip. After he left, she would figure out how to mow the lawn, whacking bushes with a hedge trimmer for the first time in her life. "Baby, I'm amazing!" she told him once when he called, and he agreed. She thought she had figured out his system for paying the bills, too. The water bill was $25. It cost her $60 to get the water reconnected.

IT WAS "NICKEL NIGHT," and Broadstreet Cafe and Billiards was thumping. The good music, the hip-hop, started around midnight, and people packed onto the dance floor and around the pool tables and in front of the bars ordering nickel drinks.

Marissa was in the dance pack with her club gear on -- shiny silver zippers up and down the legs of her shiny black pants, silver multi-chain belt and, on her feet, her platform dancing shoes. Charlie says he told her to go out and have fun, so here she was. She'd been dancing all night. She never lacked for partners, all of them women. They were the Hooah Wives, one of several online support groups of Fort Bragg wives. "Hoo-ah!" That's what soldiers shout in the Army -- it means "Good to go!" or "Way to go!" At Broadstreet's that night, there were about a dozen of them. Within a few months they'd number nearly 40, with husbands in units all over the post. They were a variety of ethnicities and religions, some with children, some without, but mostly younger, as young as 18. The group's two den mothers, Jenn Marner and Angela McGriff, were 26 and 33. About one-third of their husbands, including Angela's, were overseas.

Even though Marissa was active in her FRG, this was the group she says she really depended on. One woman's husband called it the cult -- they all e-mailed one another obsessively, talked for hours on the phone. Several times a week, one group or another of them hung out in one another's kitchens, hosted coffees, threw impromptu daiquiri parties. Every now and then, they went out dancing with one another.

Marissa worked her way through the crowd back to the table. They were celebrating the birthday of Christine Perry, who liked to introduce herself as "half Korean, like Marissa's half Vietnamese. So, basically, she could do my nails, and I could do her dry cleaning." Christine remembers opening presents, everybody blinding one another with flash photos. When the talk turned to push-up bras, Christine pointed out, matter-of-factly, that she and Marissa didn't need them.

Another woman shouted over the music, "Well some of us do!" This woman was the kind of person who, when she talked, you could almost see the italics and exclamation points. "But I don't buy those damn bras, they're too expensive! I use tube socks! They give that added boost!"

All the Hooah Wives laughed. They laughed harder as the woman made a big show of digging around in her decolletage, as if she were really going to pull out a tube sock. When she actually did, they screamed. She waved it over her head. The guys at the next table were so impressed they sent over a round of drinks.

"Oh my God!" someone hissed, just loud enough to be heard through the music. "Look who just came in."

Someone else said, "Look who she came in with." Marissa turned to look. A young woman was leading a guy toward them through the crush. They all knew her, and they all knew her husband was deployed. Marissa's face soured like she'd just chomped the lime in her Corona.

The woman shouted hi and handed a present to Christine. A few voices shouted hi back as if nothing was wrong. Marissa smoked and watched as the two of them made their way around the table to a couple of empty seats beside her. As they sat down, Marissa shouted over the music: "Look, if you're going to cheat on your husband while he's gone, that's your business. But get the hell away from me, 'cause guys talk, and I don't want anybody saying I'm hanging out with you."

Marissa says the woman's eyes widened, her mouth opened slightly. Then the woman got up and pulled the guy away with her into the dancing, sweating crowd.

IN A SUNNY OFFICE ON FORT BRAGG, Maj. James Hartz, a chaplain in forest-green camouflage with a black cross on the lapel, is getting ready to deploy to Korea for a year. Before becoming an ordained minister and then a chaplain, he was an MP. He was a young enlisted soldier once. According to him, they aren't all as accepting as Marissa's husband.

"For some young deployed soldiers," he says, "just the fact that the wife's going to a bar doesn't sit well, the fact that she's out there where she's available. The wives say they only dance with each other, but there are guys there, right? He'll ask, 'Do you talk to them?' And she'll say no. But he's thinking, 'But they're looking at you.' So you can see where this goes in his mind. It plants the seed of doubt."

Over at the Army hospital, social worker Pecko's tough camouflage and harsh haircut are undermined by his eyes, which have seen a lot of other people's pain. "I was deployed nine months in the first Gulf War," he says gently. "After six or seven months, even I was having those thoughts, and my wife and I have a strong, long-term relationship. There was no rational reason. I was just feeling vulnerable."

Beth Pratt knows what that feels like. She recalls someone at work saying, You know guys always cheat when they're over there. It stuck in her head. She told herself Luigi hadn't done anything to make her suspicious, but then one evening she was sitting in an FRG meeting, listening to the women next to her compare notes. "My husband calls me every day just about," said one. They were all a lot younger than Beth. "Oh yeah, mine too," said another.

Beth says they asked how often she heard from her husband, like it was some sort of contest. "Well," she remembers saying, knowing she'd already lost, "I heard from him last week -- for two minutes. Because the damn satellite telephone didn't work. You know, all the static -- how're you doing, shhhhhhhh. Yesterday I, shhhhhhh. Missing you, shhhhhhh. Click!"

The other women laughed because they knew what she was talking about. The conversation went on, but after that Beth didn't say much. When the meeting was over, she went home and had another cry.

"HEY, BABY." Luigi's voice crackled over her cell phone. And then shhhhh-click, the connection went dead.

Beth was in a motel in Myrtle Beach, S.C., hanging out for the weekend with their friend Debbie McKay, who was up from Florida for business. In the minutes after the connection died, Beth told Debbie she was tired of it, she was tired of everything. She didn't know why she got married; it was like they weren't even married anymore. A few minutes later when the phone rang again, and she heard Luigi's relentlessly sunny voice from the other side of the world, she demanded, "Why don't you call me?"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

She was pacing. "Everybody else's husband calls them. Every day, practically. It just makes me wonder if you don't love me anymore."

"Don't -- what?" He admits his voice went supernova, and Beth was so startled she stopped pacing. "I work all the time!" he yelled. "I don't know what you think I'm doing over here, baby, but I work all the time! I barely get to sleep! When can I talk to you? When?" He couldn't believe she'd think he didn't love her, yelled that even when he did find a minute to call her, he couldn't just pick up the phone -- he had to stand in a long line, and then after a few minutes the phone would go dead. "You know I love you!" he yelled. "You're the person who keeps me sane!"

Beth was looking at the floor. She'd never heard him raise his voice like that before. She said softly, "I'm sorry." And then, quickly, before the line could go to hell again, she told him she loved him, too.

Afterward, she said to Debbie: "I'm glad he yelled at me. I needed to hear that. All I've been thinking about is the danger he's in when he's out on convoys. I didn't think about how hard he's working."

Debbie said, "I'm just glad you didn't mention you're lying around at the beach." Beth laughed then. But after that fight with Luigi, she decided not to get together with other soldiers' wives anymore. The things they said just made her paranoid.

She had few people she could talk to in Fayetteville. Now she had even fewer.

A SHORT WALK UP THE HILL FROM DOWNTOWN, in a quiet neighborhood on a dead-end street, there's a scruffy blue bungalow with a small white, wooden sign in the front yard. "Quaker House," it says above a dove's silhouette. Since the Vietnam war, Quaker House's small, mostly volunteer staff has counseled military personnel who believe they've become conscientious objectors, helping them apply to either get out of the military or shift to noncombatant service.

With her husband in a war zone, Beth had been forced to think about war more than she ever had before. Talking about it with Luigi on the phone, she was starting to think that all wars were pointless, not just this one; so many innocent civilians died. The way she saw it, Saddam Hussein was bad, but there were a lot of bad dictators in the world, and America couldn't go fight all of them. The more she analyzed it, the angrier she got. So, earlier in the deployment, when another wife told Beth about Quaker House, she decided to meet with its director, Chuck Fager. She remembers feeling hopeful that afterward she'd be able to tell Luigi she'd found a way for both of them to act on what they believed. "My husband and I are both opposed to this war," she said to Fager. "Can you help him get out of the Army?"

Fager, gray-bearded and wearing khaki shorts and a T-shirt, slouched in his chair like a melancholy, off-duty Santa. He says he told her, "It's not easy." It's not. Successful applicants have to be able to prove they've changed and now believe the use of violence is always wrong. The process involves a lengthy application and interviews with a psychiatrist, a chaplain and an investigating officer. It's designed to weed out those who want out for political reasons, or are afraid of combat, or have a new spouse who wants them out.

"Chances of success are not good," Fager tells would-be applicants. "People who take this route need to be prepared to take a stand and suffer."

Listening to Fager, Beth knew Luigi wasn't the type to rock the boat. Besides, it was only this war he was opposed to. He said all along that he would be proud to serve in Afghanistan. By the time Beth left two hours later with an armload of application materials, she felt like she was sinking beneath their weight. She had always made her own decisions, controlled her own life, she says. Now she felt like she controlled nothing. She couldn't even help her own husband.

It began to pile up. Five months into the deployment, Beth found herself weeping in an Army health clinic, admitting to a nurse practitioner that if she had a gun she'd shoot herself.

WHEN BETH WENT TO THE HEALTH CLINIC, she was just hoping to get something to make the pain go away. Within an hour, she had received a prescription for an antidepressant, as well as counseling from a social worker and an appointment to begin regular counseling sessions in town, paid for by the Pentagon. She hadn't known any of those services were available.

The social worker Beth saw was one of five behavioral health care managers on Fort Bragg, one at each of the post's health care facilities. The care managers are part of the Deployment Cycle Support program that was getting underway as Beth and Marissa's husbands took off for Iraq. The Army started developing it in the early 1990s, after one out of every seven service members returning from Desert Storm, according to Department of Defense data, either requested or required evaluation for Gulf War Syndrome (which involves an array of symptoms from chronic fatigue to abdominal pain). And then came the summer of 2002.

That summer, there were five domestic murders connected to Fort Bragg. Three cases involved deployed soldiers just back from Afghanistan who killed their wives; two of those soldiers then killed themselves. All the marriages had apparently been troubled beforehand, and none of the soldiers or their wives had reached out to any of the support programs the Army had available at the time. There's no evidence deployment was directly to blame. But chaplains and social workers report that, after any deployment, most couples pick up where they left off, good or bad.

An Army memo acknowledges that after a wartime deployment, service members and their families may also face "some degree of stress or trauma associated either with the nature of conflict or the disruption of their lives." As many as one in five may also face major depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a report in the July issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. And most of those who need help won't seek it out, at least not right away.

Before the murders, the Deployment Cycle Support program was still in development after nearly a decade. The incidents "gave us the impetus for getting this program off the ground," Pecko says. It rolled out within a year. In addition to the care managers and other changes, the program requires all returning soldiers to undergo physical and mental health screening to uncover possible trouble.

However, there are no mandatory mental health surveys for the families. "Families didn't sign the contract; they aren't in the military," points out Jana Lord, coordinator of Army Family Team Building and Army Family Action Plan programs in Europe. "They can't be ordered to do anything, even for their own good."

When families need help and don't know how to get it, military medical personnel, social workers and chaplains can refer those who come to them. The real first responders are the spouse volunteers who lead the FRGs and the other services' family support groups, because they know where to get information. But like all volunteer efforts, some support groups thrive while others wither away. So why does the Pentagon invest so much money in family support services, then rely on a haphazard patchwork of volunteers to spread the word?

"One, it doesn't cost them anything," says Sylvia Kidd, director of family programs for the Association of the United States Army. "And, two, because of tradition, because that is the way it's always been . . . The military freely admits many of the programs wouldn't exist if it weren't for the volunteers working on them."

Besides being free, the use of volunteers has another advantage. They're not perceived as being part of the system. Spouses who need help are more likely to acknowledge it to a fellow spouse, someone like Marissa.

A COUPLE MONTHS INTO THE DEPLOYMENT, attrition left Marissa as co-leader of her FRG. Volunteering, working, single-parenting -- she was doing it all. She was too busy to feel lonely, and that was how she liked it. She was also too busy to sleep more than four hours a night. She'd forget to eat. She lost 30 pounds in less than two months.

After the deployment's halfway point, at 4:30 on a Friday morning, the phone was ringing. Marissa felt for the handset next to the bed, pulled it over to her ear without lifting her head. It was Charlie. She tried to follow what he was saying because it sounded like it was important, but her eyes kept closing, dark bedroom, warm bed, Lexie's even breathing beside her. And then all of a sudden she heard, "What did I just say?"

"What?"

"If you're falling asleep," he snapped, "I'm going to go."

She was too tired to argue. "Okay."

"Do you know how long I had to stand in line to talk to you?"

"Look, I'm really tired," she said. "I'll talk to you later. Bye."

It wasn't till she woke up a couple hours later that she had the energy to be mad at him for being mad at her. When she complained the next day to some of the Hooah Wives, they say they told her: Yeah, you work hard, but he's over there getting shot at every day. He calls you in the middle of the night because he needs to hear your voice? Well, you just better suck it up and be there for him.

A couple of weeks later, Marissa was racing to the hospital with Lexie in the middle of the night and arguing with the MP; the next day she nearly lost her job. By the weekend, Lexie was still under the weather, so Marissa stretched out on the couch with her to just snuggle and watch cartoons. They'd been lying there a while, Marissa remembers, when Lexie said, from out of the blue, "Since Daddy's been gone, we don't get to snuggle and have fun anymore."

For a long, stunned moment, the only thing that moved was the animation on the TV screen. Then Marissa breathed, "You're right," and before she got off the couch that day, she'd made a decision.

She cut back on her work. Over the next couple weeks, her output dropped by a quarter. And then one morning her supervisor called to tell her she needed to do more.

"I can't do more." Marissa was already smoking and typing and wearing the headset, trying to get ready for her hearings that day while she talked. "I can't go back to where I was."

"Well, what you're giving us now isn't enough. I'm going to have to let you go."

"No." Marissa's hands went still. "I'm going to have to quit."

Marissa pulled off the headset. She got up. She remembers feeling defeated, unsure about what to do next -- the next hour, the next day, the next month. But when she thought of Lexie, still asleep in the bed, she felt some relief. She lay down on the couch. All around her, the house was suddenly silent and still.

EARLY LAST SPRING, THE CROWD OF MARCHERS CAME AROUND THE CORNER from Fayetteville's downtown and on down the hill to the park. They wore bluejeans and T-shirts, desert camouflage jackets and gothic black. They pushed strollers, carried water bottles and signs and banners -- "Bring Them Home Now" -- and an American flag. It was Fayetteville's largest peace rally since the Vietnam War.

The park's band shell was a vast shaded space littered with speakers and microphone stands and drums. Below it, the marchers spread across the grass in the sun. A newsprint program listed speakers and performers -- veterans, union members, Hip-Hop Against Racist War, a September 11 family member, and the fourth speaker on the list, "Beth Pratt -- military spouse from Fayetteville whose husband is in Iraq."

She'd been invited to speak at the peace rally. Here, at last, was something she could do. A small thing, but something. In the last few weeks, Beth had been feeling steadily better -- she'd started attending a church, she'd signed up for a yoga class. When Luigi called, she told him she'd finally picked up her drumsticks again. She says that after she got the invitation to speak at the rally, she asked Luigi if he thought she should do it. "Would it bother you?" she asked.

Over the phone, she had heard him laugh. "Far as I'm concerned, that's what I'm over here for, isn't it? Your freedom of speech?"

Now she walked across the stage and stopped in front of one of the microphones, silhouetted against the crowd. She gripped the pages of her speech and leaned forward.

"My name is Beth Pratt. I'm a nurse, and I grew up in Minnesota."

Her voice boomed over the crowd. She told them it had taken all the courage she had to stand up there and speak for those few minutes. "As far as supporting the troops," she read, "I support my husband one hundred percent, along with all of the other soldiers that are making sacrifices for us. Ending this war and bringing them all home safely would be the best form of support that I can see."

She spoke for just three minutes. When she turned away from the mike, her heartbeat faded out of her ears, and the crowd's roar faded in.

Afterward, as the speeches went on behind her, Beth spoke to reporters from local newspapers and the New York Times and to a pudgy man with a cell phone on his hip. He shook Beth's hand. "I'm a producer with NBC," he said. His crew had had some technical difficulties while she was speaking. He wanted her to come over to the camera and tell the rest of the country what she'd just said up there.

Beth frowned and hunched her shoulders. "You mean national TV?" She suddenly looked smaller. She glanced around for a familiar face. "Television. I don't know. I don't know if I should do that."

"What you had to say was very powerful," the producer said, cupping his hands in front of him as if offering a gift. "It's a great opportunity to get your message out there."

She hesitated. "I'm sorry," she said, "I'm just worried about my job. And my husband." As the producer pressed on, she mumbled, "I have to think about it; I don't know." The other reporters exchanged glances. The producer said, "It's right over there; it won't take long." And then Lou Plummer, one of the rally's organizers, shouldered his way into the middle.

"Back off," he barked. A veteran of the National Guard, Plummer looked more like a bouncer than a peace activist. "You don't have to live in this town, but she does. I live here. I know what it's like." As the producer argued with him, another newspaper reporter moved in to ask Beth a few questions.

She didn't do the TV interview, but when she saw her words in print the next day, she liked how it felt; she began wondering what she should do next. She thought about doing something more significant, like joining Doctors Without Borders, an international medical charity, and going overseas. But, in the end, she went no farther than downtown to join the occasional peace vigil. What she wanted was a family with Luigi. She knew it was going to be hard enough to make that happen, she says, without her being gone, too.

MARISSA WAS CLEANING OUT THE CLOSETS. The Hooah Wives were having a yard sale, and suddenly Marissa had hours to empty her life of junk. She had hours to teach Lexie to ride her two-wheeler. She says she told Charlie about it when he called, described Lexie wobbling off on her own for the first time, and he got quiet. Then Charlie remembers saying, "Seems like you guys are going off someplace without me." She had hours to park herself out on the back deck and smoke and think about that.

And when Charlie called home sounding angry and hollow and tired of being in Iraq, she recalls how she tried to hold him up. "You're providing security," she told him. "If we pulled out now, a lot more people would die; it would be chaos. You guys are over there risking your lives, and it's not for nothing." She poured herself across 6,000 miles. "And I am proud of you."

Online and on the phone with the Hooah Wives, she talked with her friends. "When the man you love is in a life-or-death situation," she said, "it makes you sit down and think about what really matters in your own life." She knew she didn't want to keep doing the kind of paralegal work she could get in Fayetteville. She signed up to go back to college in the fall.

Eventually, Marissa would determine she couldn't afford to go back. In the meantime, she went down to the pack-and-ship store where she used to go every weekend to overnight big packages of legal documents and asked about a job. It paid only $6.50 an hour, but it was part time, and she could get time off whenever she needed it. The woman who ran the place was married to an active-duty soldier, too. She understood that when Charlie came home, the pack-and-ship wouldn't be seeing much of Marissa Bootes for a while.

AFTER SEVEN MONTHS IN IRAQ, first Charlie Bootes and then Luigi Pratt would board planes in Kuwait and fly back around the world to their wives in North Carolina. Both men are scheduled to be deployed again next year, this time to Afghanistan, this time for a year.

Here on Fort Bragg, people constantly say goodbye -- but then, most of the time, they get to say welcome home. In Chaplain Hartz's office, there are a couple of institutional office chairs, a box of tissues. A lot of people have sat within the painted cinder-block walls of this room and cried. "You'd like to be able to wave a magic wand," Hartz says, and then his eyes well up. He looks down, and for a long moment he bites his lip. At last he says quietly, "It makes me grateful for my own relationship."

In his first few years as a chaplain, Hartz left his family during three major deployments. "There are benefits," he says. "If the soldier handles it right, his spouse's growth as a person is phenomenal. If the relationship is solid and he's not threatened and he can accept that, and say, Wow, she's more of a woman, she's stronger, she's a better person, and we're a better team . . ." He leans forward. "The real news is, most of us make it."

Kristin Henderson, a frequent contributor to the Magazine, is working on a book based on this article. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.