Unexpected is expected in military families

By Tom Philpott: Guest Columnist

By July 26, Jennifer Flower had resigned from her civilian job at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. With her husband, Army SSgt. Brian Flower, expected home within days after a tough year in Mosul, Iraq, Jennifer planned to welcome him home and then to pack for reassignment to Fort Knox, Ky.

That morning, however, Jennifer heard a news report that shocked her. The 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Brian’s unit, might see its year-long combat tour extended for up to 120 days.

Army Gen. George W. Casey, commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, ordered the 4,000-member brigade to Baghdad to help stop the violence between Sunnis and Shiites. In July alone, more than 1,800 Baghdad residents were killed, raising fears of a broader civil war if attacks continue.

In a video teleconference with the brigade’s Family Readiness Group — spouse volunteers ready to pass along information and provide support to other families — Col. Michael Shields, brigade commander, confirmed the disappointing news.

“I was very upset. Angry. I was sad,” said Jennifer, describing her initial reaction. “It was literally heartbreaking. To spend 12 months (apart) and to be within days of having your spouse back home, to find out that was going to be ripped away … was crushing.”

That was three weeks ago. Families say they are bouncing back. They have returned to work, altered travel and vacation plans, arranged for ticket refunds and unpacked boxes. Some have taken their children on to new assignments, including to Europe, so they can settle in before school starts. Other children are surprised to be returning to Fairbanks schools.

“Just like anything else in the military, stuff happens unexpected. It is what it is. So you pick yourself up and you carry on,” Jennifer said.

Spouses who are counseling spouses, through the readiness group, said most families have gotten over the shock. Soldiers and families are focusing on their new challenges. One is to ship back a lot of personal gear that soldiers already sent home. Also returning to Iraq will be 300 soldiers who had been sent home early to prepare for the full brigade’s return.

Tricia Rambin, wife of the brigade’s operations officer, Lt. Col. Mitchell Rambin, said her first concern on hearing of the extension was to be sure her sons, Matthew and William, got the information first from her not the media.

Eleven-year-old Matthew, she said, “cried for a few minutes, then pulled himself together and said, ‘Well, that’s OK. That’s my dad’s job.’ My other son is taking it a little differently. He’s 10 and can only absorb so much at one time. Every day there has been a new question.”

The Rambin family immediately sent an e-mail to her husband, Tricia said, “to let him know that we were OK. That we actually felt bad for him that he wasn’t coming home to us. And that we were doing fine. He needed to get back to work and not worry about us.”

Courtney Bedoya, wife of Capt. Joey Bedoya, a transportation officer with the brigade’s support battalion, said her husband was expected home in just 10 days when she learned of the extension.

“I was disappointed, of course. But it’s part of what I married into,” Courtney said.

Maj. Kirk Gohlke, spokesman for U.S. Army Alaska, said that in Baghdad the brigade will “assist the Iraqi security force with the sectarian violence. … It’s the most critical mission over there right now.”

The 172nd was chosen, he said, “because it has proven itself in combat (and) is the most experienced brigade over there.”