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Week of 1.19.07

A window into the lives of deploying soldiers
By NOW Field Producer Mona Iskander

NOW Field Producer Mona Iskander Georgia's Fort Stewart is the largest Army base east of the Mississippi River. That didn't mean much to me until I arrived there and saw that it had everything that would make up a small town. Located about 40 minutes from Savannah, the base has fast food restaurants, shopping malls, bowling alleys, daycare centers and thousands of homes for the soldiers of the Third Infantry Division.

I came to this Army community late last year with fellow field producer Brian Epstein and a camera crew. It would not be my first time on a military base—several years ago, I spent time at Camp Le Jeune in North Carolina, reporting on the Marines who'd captured Baghdad. But that was 2003—a very different time for our country, and a very different phase in the war.

"We wanted to be there to ask some basic questions: What kind of toll would it take on the children? How would life decisions be affected? Were they afraid? Angry?"
In just a few weeks from the day we arrived, the 4,000 soldiers of the 1st Brigade would make headlines as the first to return for a third time. We wanted to be there to ask some basic questions: What kind of toll would it take on the children? How would life decisions be affected? Were they afraid? Angry? These questions seemed unaddressed in much of the recent coverage of the war.

We stuck our noses (politely) in peoples' lives. We were invited to Christmas parties, training exercises, luncheons and even a boxing match. We talked to soldiers young and old, experienced and new. Of all the soldiers and families we met, there were many who made an impression on me. One is Juel Obert. We first met Juel at a luncheon for the wives of deploying soldiers. She was one of six women gathered around a table inside a base restaurant to tell us about the support network they'd created. Juel's voice stood out. She seemed different to me: young, but tired, and vocal about how hard it sometimes was to make ends meet as the wife of an enlisted soldier with four children. Most of the other women were older and officers' wives. I was intrigued by what Juel had to say and wanted to know more.

"Becoming a virtual single mother for a year was not going to be easy. But she'd done it once, twice, and she would do it again."
Later in the week, we were invited into Juel's home where met her husband, Mike, and their four young children. Juel and Mike met when they were teenagers. Now, at 27 and 28, they were juggling the often competing demands of parenthood and military life. I was amazed at how young she and Mike were to have so many responsibilities.

This would be Mike's third deployment to Iraq. He came across as reserved and fit the image of a dedicated soldier. But Juel was anxious and nervous about the year ahead of her. She repeated what so many other women at Fort Stewart told us: Becoming a virtual single mother for a year was not going to be easy. But she'd done it once, twice, and she would do it again.

In our next visit in early January, we visited the Oberts the night before Mike was to leave to Iraq. His demeanor had clearly changed. He seemed no longer self-conscious in front of the camera and was instead more focused and pensive. I also saw a tenderness I hadn't seen before in his eyes as he gazed at his children. And Juel was there by his side, calm and cool.

Later that week, soldiers left for Iraq. Some families were willing to talk about it; for others it was just too painful... Nevertheless, I was in awe of the strength each had at this crucial time, not only in their personal lives but in history. I will never truly understand how one prepares for such a situation. But I am grateful for the small window they opened for me into their lives.

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