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.
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."
Michelle Nelson said she stays away from the chat rooms. She is much too busy with her 252 families, organizing fundraising drives and soliciting donations that will go toward gifts and party boxes that will be shipped to the soldiers so they can celebrate Christmas in Afghanistan. They are even shipping over a couple of artificial Christmas trees.
The group has also purchased a DVD camcorder that is used to record family moments that are then shipped on disc to the theater of war. One young wife just brought the camcorder to an ultrasound appointment so her husband could share the moment on a 7,000-mile delay.
The unit got its deployment order in March and went off to train at Fort Bragg, N.C., until the first week of July. Members spent two weeks with their families before being shipped to Afghanistan. Some of the young guardsmen used the two weeks to get married or expand their families.
"Oh, yeah," Nelson laughed, "we have had lots of babies and a lot of people who got pregnant during the two-week leave. We have a lot of babies on the way right now. I also think the deployment encouraged some young men, who probably wouldn't have done it otherwise, to get married."
While the soldiers were training at Fort Bragg, the Army and the Family Readiness Group were preparing the families for the deployment, telling them about military health insurance and retirement plan options and other programs available to them now that their unit had been activated, and counseling them on how to get along without their spouses. They also urged families to have "the discussion."
The Nelsons had their discussion months before Mark Nelson left for Afghanistan.
"Well, first thing we did was to get really good life insurance, more life insurance," Michelle Nelson said. "We wrote letters to each other in the event that something happened to him. We made extra video of him, and he made teddy bears for his little ones with his voice on them, and we went over where he'd like to be buried if something happens."
Not long after the unit landed in Afghanistan, two members were killed when their vehicle hit an explosive device. "They had been boots on the ground for three weeks when it happened," Michelle Nelson said.
Her phone began to ring soon after word got out about the deaths. Wives called to find out whether they were now widows. She would tell them no but was not allowed to identify the two dead soldiers. Two of the first calls she answered were from the wives who had lost their husbands, wanting to know what they needed to do now about all the details that come with burying a loved one.
Soon after the soldiers were buried, she began to hear from many wives who had not had "the discussion" and now were seeking her help in framing the talk they must have long distance. The war had hit home very violently and very quickly, and she helped the families through the first deaths and prepare for what would come in the year-long deployment.
Mark Nelson said that as each day passes, his troops worry as much or more about their families back home as they do about the dangerous job they are doing. "That worry is always there," he said, referring to the home front.
"They are doing things that normally you would take care of and now they have to do themselves. The phone and computer center helps, though it is not the same as you being home. . . . The difficult part is hearing your children in the background. You can hear them growing up, but you don't see it," he said.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming, and Michelle Nelson will help her families get through the holidays. She is already thinking about the day her husband will come home, and she said the reunions of soldiers and spouses are sometimes more difficult than the deployment.
"New routines are established in the absence of the soldiers and new methods of doing things," she said. "Many of the wives who might have been a little bit dependent are much more independent by the time the soldier comes home. . . . When they come home, the soldier has experienced different things, and there is no telling what impact that had on him. And then there is the wife and all she has experienced, and so the reunion can be more difficult than the deployment."
But reunion is still months and months off. For now, she and her husband, nearly 7,000 miles apart, will work as a team just about every day to get the Virginia soldiers and their families through a time of war.