Home, for Better or Worse
Families are struggling with mixed emotions as thousands of service members are granted brief leaves.
By Esther Schrader
Times Staff Writer
October 12, 2003
CHESTER, Pa. -- Iliana Sanchez had everything in place two weeks ago for her husband's leave from Iraq.
The yellow ribbons were on the porch railing, the American flags in the front yard, the yellow-and-white mums in pots alongside. And Iliana, two dress sizes smaller from stress and worry in the eight months Jose Sanchez has been away, had put in for vacation from her job.
But by the time Jose actually walked off a plane at 11:30 Wednesday night and into his wife's waiting arms, he had been delayed four times by one bureaucratic snag or another. The ribbons had gotten rained on. The mums were starting to wither. Iliana's vacation was almost used up. And even as she watched her husband clasp her 6-year- old daughter's hand in his huge one, Iliana's relief and joy were muted by anxiety over what her husband had seen and done in the war, by frustration at the delays in getting him home, and by the knowledge that she would be at the airport in 15 days sending him back to the fighting.
The Pentagon is worried too. Two weeks into the most ambitious home leave program since the Vietnam War, thousands of military families are struggling with how to cope when Johnny comes marching home again — then marches back the way he came.
At the Pentagon, officials say they expect some soldiers not to show up for their flights back to Iraq, and they expect others to be so deeply torn at leaving their families again that they will have trouble coping when they return to the war.
But with 130,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq in a military occupation that has become prolonged and bloody, and with tension mounting among service members and their families over yearlong deployments, military officials said they had little choice but to institute the program in an effort to boost morale.
"At first, I didn't encourage him to come home, because I didn't want to say goodbye again," Iliana, 38, said in an interview at her home. As she spoke, her little girl sprawled across her lap, showing a visitor a mouth filled with gaps where she's lost teeth since Daddy's been gone. "I'm alone now and he's not here and it's very different. I don't know what to expect when he comes back. I know he loves us and misses us, but he has seen things and done things in this war that have changed his spirit. I'm afraid that when he comes home he's going to realize how different he is."
Before long, officials say, 800 soldiers a day will be flying out of Iraq on leave. They predict the program will cost the Pentagon $770 million this year alone.
"We know we're going to have crying family members clinging to soldiers at the airport," said Joe Burgas, a Pentagon spokesman. "We know we're going to have people who don't make it back on time, maybe people who don't make it back at all. But most soldiers are going to say, 'I've got buddies over there, and they are dependent on me coming back.' "
The decision to grant home leaves to troops serving abroad for 12 months or more in Iraq and Kuwait is a gamble for the Pentagon. Not only do commanders run the risk that some soldiers will not return to duty, they also fear that some reunions could lead to domestic violence if soldiers and spouses fail to adjust to their temporarily changed roles. And if the program does not run smoothly, it could backfire, intensifying the anger and frustration that military families already feel over the arduous deployments.
The leave program has already gotten off to a bumpy start. The Pentagon is ferrying troops from Baghdad to a military base in Germany or to one of several major airports in the United States, then requiring the fighters to pay to get themselves home from there. But the soldiers are getting so little notice that they are going home — in some cases only hours — that they have been forced to buy pricey last-minute tickets for the last legs of their trips.
After hundreds of military spouses complained to federal lawmakers, bills were introduced last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would require the Pentagon to pick up the tab for door-to-door flights. At the same time, several major airlines announced that they would give returning troops steep discounts on posted fares.
Other soldiers have been denied leave because they are engaged in sensitive intelligence work or are in units that are poorly staffed. Their families are crying foul. For soldiers who qualify for the leaves, the Pentagon is scrambling to devise a uniform screening system that would limit the likelihood of granting leave to someone who is a flight risk or who is likely to be abusive at home.
"Just because you're eligible doesn't mean you're going to get this leave," Burgas said. "The Army is concerned about the potential for domestic violence, with spouses at home [used to] having more independence than they have experienced before. And if some guy is telling his buddies that once he gets out he's never coming back, his commander just is not going to let him go. It's harsh but it's true."
Despite the military's apprehensions, neither the Pentagon nor any individual unit has created counseling programs or other support systems for the families of soldiers taking the leaves. Most military bases and reserve units have family support groups of some sort, but those groups have not been asked to reach out to troops on leave.
In fact, the Pentagon maintains no master list of who is taking the time off. Instead, it is up to the individual unit commanders to decide which of the soldiers can go, and when.
Some soldiers have arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where most of the flights of troops on home leave are landing, with no one to greet them and no way to get home. Sanchez arrived unexpectedly in Philadelphia because his flight was rerouted.
Those sorts of complications have made the military reluctant for decades to grant mass home leaves. Even during the Vietnam War, it was not until the war had lasted for many years that troops were allowed to come home to the U.S. From 1964 to 1968, troops were allowed one seven-day leave every 12 months to Bangkok, Hong Kong or Honolulu. It was unusual for soldiers to reunite with their spouses during those leaves.
In October 1970, the program was amended to allow troops for the first time to take 14-day leaves in the continental U.S. About 4,000 troops a month took advantage of the leaves through the end of the war.
Bob Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, said troops coming back from leaves to Vietnam were often badly prepared to return to combat.
"To get yanked out of a war, it was sort of like you broke stride," Muller said.
Here's what Jose Sanchez, a 37-year-old Army reservist, is finding as he breaks stride from his job in Baghdad with the Army's 220th military police brigade, where he has been working as a security escort for an Army chaplain: His job as a flight attendant for U.S. Airways is gone — the airline laid him off two months after he left for the war in February. Gone with it is the $22.50 an hour he had been making for the past six years, since shortly after he came to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico to build a new life with his young family.
His wife is making less at her job as a customer service agent for the airline. With Jose gone and unable to pitch in to help during the day, she has been forced to cut back on her hours so she can take the couple's 10-year-old son, Alex, to frequent doctors appointments to treat a behavioral disorder.
The three-bedroom duplex the couple own in this modest, working-class town on the southern outskirts of Philadelphia is a lot more cramped these days, too, since Jose's parents moved in from Puerto Rico tohelp Iliana care for the kids. Their ability to help is limited, Iliana says, because they neither drive nor speak English.
Jose will find, too, that without the airline's generous medical benefits, Iliana has had to pay out of the family's scanty cash reserves for the braces she had gotten just before he was sent to the fighting. Her health insurance doesn't cover orthodontia.
The kids are grumpy because they no longer get to go to Chuck E.Cheese and McDonald's — Iliana says they can't afford to eat out. As for toys, well, "Christmas is not here yet, thanks Lord," Iliana says.
Ana, the 6-year-old, crawls into bed with her mother now in the middle of the night, something she hasn't done for years. Alex misses his father's help with his science homework.
"They miss their Dad," Iliana says. "His not being here, it's like an emptiness, and I want to fill it for them so they don't miss him so much."
But there are some changes, Iliana says, that should make Jose smile.
There is the fact that Iliana, who couldn't pay a bill, register the car or change the oil when Jose left now can do all that. After nine years of sleeping on a mattress and box spring, Iliana went out on her anniversary and managed to buy a real bed frame.
"Layaway!" she said, eyes twinkling, when asked how she managed to find the money. Since Jose has been gone, she said, she has taken to clipping coupons and driving to nearby Delaware, where there is no sales tax, to save on groceries.
"I write Jose an e-mail every night — I never used a computer before he left — and I tell him that I grew up, that I am turning into a very old woman with all this knowledge," Iliana said. "I always say he's my missing half.
"When he's here, everything I miss, he gets it. Now it's a different story. You grow up and you learn that things in life are not granted to you. Because right now I don't have him. Every day I either cry or I have to face reality."
Iliana plans to concentrate on Jose for the next two weeks. She will make him tostones, a Puerto Rican delicacy of shrimp and plantains. This weekend, she plans a surprise early Christmas party for him, complete with live music by a friend's salsa band.
But beyond the celebrations lie the fears. More than anything else, Iliana said, she fears the consequences of the secrets they have to keep from each other these days. She doesn't want to worry him with the banalities of her daily struggles, she said — "not when I know he needs all his five senses working to stay safe."
Taped to the wall of their master bedroom is a sheet of paper with Jose's detailed instructions for what day of each month to pay the bills. Next to it is a calendar. She puts stickers on it to remind herself to tell him how the days went, after he's home for good. A star sticker means it was a good day, Iliana said. A ladybug sticker is for the days "when the kids are really bugging me," she said.
She is sure there are things, probably horrible things, that Jose is not telling her.
"When he leaves, I don't know honestly from where I will get the strength, because deep in my heart it will be broken," Iliana said. "But at least I am going to get to see him. I tell my son and my daughter, we have to feel very grateful for that."