TOPICS > Nation

Delayed Return

May 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


SINGING: His truth is marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s become a familiar, if sobering scene.

SINGING: Glory, glory hallelujah…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fellow soldiers gathered at a memorial service. This one, in Fort Polk, Louisiana, for Army Private First Class Clayton Henson, who was killed when his convoy was ambushed in Iraq. He died at a time when he was originally scheduled to head home. Henson was one of the 2,800 soldiers based at Fort Polk who was finishing his 12 months of service in Iraq when he got word from the Pentagon that his tour of duty would be extended for a few more months. Henson’s death and the news of another soldier from the same unit left family members of the armored cavalry regiment shaken.

WOMAN: Before we go outside I have to put the vest on.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tania Cuervo’s husband, Lewis Julian Cuervo, serves as a military intelligence officer in Henson’s unit.

TANIA CUERVO: Any time we have a soldier injured or killed, it affects us because the worries that, you know, you never know whether it will be you next, you know, or your own loved one next. And, yeah, I’m sure there were some angry people that he shouldn’t… that shouldn’t have happened because he should have been home, you know. But we can’t live in the “could have, would have.” It’s unfortunate to say it that way, but it would just drive you insane.

GIRL READING LETTER: “I just wanted to write to you a short letter to let you know that I was thinking of you.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Cuervo and her twin 12-year-old daughters, Yazmine and Katherine, had filled the house with their father’s favorite foods. Her husband had already shipped out to Kuwait and was on his way home.

TANIA CUERVO: We’d been counting the days. We were just thrilled that we were down to like the week. And then when we heard that they weren’t coming home, it was crushing. It was just devastating. But, you know, it’s his job and I have to… I have to deal with it.

SHAWN WILLIAMS: Your command wants you all to develop an information sheet on your soldiers and families so that we have that in case of a crisis, critical injury, and worst case, casualty.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shawn Williams is the family readiness manager at Fort Polk. Her role, making sure families have what they need, has become pivotal in these stressful times.

SHAWN WILLIAMS: The anxiety levels have increased, and understandably so. They should have been home. That was the initial plan. But, of course, you know, we are, again, a nation at war. Family members understand that. The anxiety has increased as they see it reported over and over and over again about the escalating violence.

SPOKESPERSON: Deployment extension truly stinks. There is no mystery to that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Williams says the best way to deal with increased anxiety is to strengthen the family groups on the base by keeping spouses prepared, informed and busy. ( Laughter )

SPOKESPERSON: We’ve got the car?

SPOKESPERSON: We’ve got the car, we’ve got the phone, we’ve got the keys.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Team-building activities help lighten the mood at family meetings.

SPOKESPERSON: Explain your motto and your banner.

WOMAN: Our motto is we’re SWADS: Super Wives of a Deployed Soldier, and we have a SWAD here and she’s carrying her cell phone, because, you know, we all have our cell phone with us at all times, just in case our husband gets a chance to call. And she’s carrying a baby, and she’s doing all this in her stiletto shoes, trying to maintain her style, with her bag from Wal-Mart and her box of priority mail to ship out at the post office.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But here at Fort Polk, the morale building is not just to keep spouses occupied; it’s actually seen as a way to keep soldiers safe in the battlefield. If soldiers are worried about their families back home, it might compromise their military performance.

SHAWN WILLIAMS: Who do you think keeps the soldiers getting up every day? Who do you think is keeping the soldiers focused? Who do you think is keeping the soldiers on guard so that they are… that they will come home? The family members are. They’re encouraging, they’re supporting. They’re seeing exactly what the nation is seeing via the news media, but they are telling their husbands, their wives, their sons and their daughters, “we love you, we’re praying for you, we can’t wait to see you.” They’re extending that hope across the water.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That sentiment was echoed by a commander from the second armored cavalry regiment when he called in from Iraq.

COMMANDER: Good evening, ladies. About a month ago I had planned to be able to do this in person, but the enemy voted, and we all are going to have to sacrifice a little bit more. I appreciate the sacrifice that you all are doing back there. And I’ll tell you that you all are so very important in maintaining the morale of the soldiers because it helps keep soldiers focused to know that their families are being looked after.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: January Gable’s husband, First Lieutenant Rob Gable, missed the birth of their daughter, Miranda. Anxious to return, Gable had already shipped most of his belongings home.

JANUARY GABLE: It was very emotional. We had really been looking forward to him coming home. We were counting the days down. And then it didn’t happen. But we’re hanging in there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gable’s husband was already in the military when they first met.

JANUARY GABLE: I couldn’t tell him not to be in the army. You know, that was his career choice, and I couldn’t say “no, you can’t do that.” So I was prepared for it.

SPOKESPERSON: As a military spouse, we are the carpenter, the doctor, accountant, tutor, family advocate, window washers, dish washers… ( laughter ) chauffeurs, boo-boo fixers… ( laughter )

BETTY ANN BOWSER: To celebrate those wives and husbands who have put up with long separations from their loved ones, Fort Polk recently held a “Spouse Appreciation Day.” ( Applause )

SPOKESPERSON: As military spouses, we have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate that we have elected to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure our soldiers are focused on the business at hand. And for that, our nation thanks you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jodi Sampson, whose husband is a black hawk helicopter mechanic, says that while her husband likes his career, the long tour and the extension will become a factor in his decision to reenlist, not because of the danger of combat, but because of the strain of separation from the family.

JODI SAMPSON: I think the being away has been the biggest issue. And looking at the future with what’s going on in Iraq, there is a very likely chance that he would be gone again for a long period of time, and I think he would… that would make him question it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For now, Fort Polk families are waiting to hear when they can start to plan for the real return of their loved ones.