Gulf War Vets Home Page

Mon, Nov. 20, 2006

Children cope with absence amid wartime

Questions reflect worry for their parents in Iraq.

By Edward Colimore
http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/front/16055457.htm
Inquirer Staff Writer

In their prayers at bedtime, the children ask God to "please let Daddy come home alive" from Iraq and "keep the sand out of the treats we send him."

One 4-year-old boy asked his mother whether they'll have a Christmas tree this year, since Dad won't be around to cut one down for them.

And a 4-year-old girl asked her family minister: "If Daddy dies, would he go to heaven?"

The questions from the children of troops on second and third Iraq deployments have been surprising and sometimes heartbreaking.

The spouses who hear them every day have endured long absences before, but not with sons and daughters old enough to understand that Dad is away at war.

They keep their children away from grim war news on the television - more than 100 Americans were killed last month - and ask teachers to be alert for signs of stress.

And they stay busy with work, family, household duties and places of worship, especially during birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, to cope with the months of separation.

"I know how to use the snowblower now, I know about the lawn, and I had my crash course on paying the bills and balancing the checkbook," said Stephanie Lukens, 40, of Glenmoore, Chester County, whose husband returns this month to Iraq for a second tour. "I learned all of that the first time. But it's so different the second time around."

When Lukens' husband, Lt. Col. John Lukens, 45, of the Army Reserve 358th Civil Affairs Brigade in Norristown, was sent to Iraq in 2004, the couple's twins, Henry and Samuel, were 13 months old. Their oldest, Jacob, was 4.

"The twins weren't walking and were barely talking," Stephanie Lukens said. "Now they're 4 and Jacob is 7, and they understand more than I thought they would. It's actually more stressful.

"I tell them that I can't promise that Daddy is not going to die. That's in God's hands. We can only hope that God will protect all the soldiers. And I tell them about his bulletproof vest and other gear that protects him."

Hundreds of reservists, National Guard members, and active-duty troops from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware have been sent to Iraq since the war began - and many of their families will gather again this Thanksgiving with a vacant chair at the table.

Under the present system, reserve units can be called back to Iraq a year after they have returned from a tour of duty, but the vast majority have not, Pentagon officials say.

About 20 percent of the National Guard force across the country has volunteered to return to Iraq, officials say. Guard troops are normally under state control but can be federalized for national military service.

Many active-duty members of the Marine Corps, which is usually more involved in combat roles, have done three or more tours of duty.

With their father away, a question from one of the Lukens twins about whether the family would have a Christmas tree this year caught their mother off-guard. The twins remembered that their father had taken them along to cut the tree down in the past.

"They don't forget anything," said Stephanie Lukens, whose boys wear military-style camouflage outfits to imitate their father. "I tear up every night when they pray, no matter what they say."

Christina Lewis, 36, wife of 358th Headquarters company commander Maj. Christopher Lewis, 39, also now headed for Iraq for a second time, said military spouses have it easier today in some ways.

"You find out what's going on more readily," said Lewis, who lives with her son, William, 6, and daughter, Olivia, 3, in East Fallowfield Township, Chester County. "This war is more publicized, and that's a blessing and a curse... .

"With the technology, we have access to e-mails, Web cams and cell phones. In World War II, they used to number letters because they would arrive out of sequence."

Lewis said that soon after her husband left, her son asked her: "What if Daddy gets hurt?"

"I had to explain that Daddy is well-trained and knows how to protect himself. That was hard," said Lewis, an Army veteran who has known her husband for almost 20 years. "We talk about him all the time: what he's doing and when he's coming home. I have to explain in a way he understands, like he won't be back until kindergarten is over."

Lewis said the children know their father "comes and goes, that he's not a normal dad. I'm used to it," she said. "I'll have my 12th anniversary on Dec. 3, and we've had only one together. When he's gone, life goes on. It has to."

Lewis said she was exchanging e-mails with her husband one day during his 2004-05 tour when his response stopped abruptly.

"He said, 'Don't watch TV.' Of course, I did," she said. "A bomb hit the embassy in Baghdad where he was working. I was on edge, but I try not to get wrapped up in the news."

Capt. Brian Ackerman, a critical-care nurse in the Delaware Air National Guard who is scheduled to leave for Iraq in January, said military spouses are serving the country as much as the troops.

"My wife is a super woman - that's the only way you can describe her," said Ackerman, 40, a West Chester resident who has been to Iraq twice and Afghanistan twice. "Most people in the community go to work, have children, and have vacations, and are not impacted by the wars.

"But my wife and children are impacted every time I leave, and not just financially. The emotional toll is catastrophic. I can't fathom how my wife can continually provide the level of support and care for the kids. Trying to fill the void of Dad is a massive undertaking - emotionally, mentally and physically."

Ackerman said the men and women "who do this are truly the ones who go unrecognized. In World War II, everybody sacrificed," he said. "My neighbors are very supportive of my wife. They become surrogate husbands who fix the plumbing, plow the snow, and cut the grass.

"But you get outside of the block and few people know. My wife is a speech therapist and sometimes deals with demanding parents, and she thinks: 'At least your husband will be home tonight in bed with you.' You walk down the street and you don't know whose husband or wife is overseas. Some are making much higher sacrifices than people are aware."

Ackerman's wife, Laura, 37, said her husband had been gone for parts of her two pregnancies. The couple have two daughters, Kathryn Hope, 4, and Charlotte Mariam, 1.

"We've developed coping strategies for the kids," she said. "Every night we say good night. I would teach her to talk to the moon because Daddy would see the same moon, no matter where he was in the world.

"Brian knew we were doing this, so he went to Amazon.com and had children's books about the moon sent to Katie. He'd send along a note with the order, something about seeing us at Thanksgiving or about him being proud that Katie learned to ride a bike. And we would paste that in the book. Now, she has a collection of books on the moon."

For now, Laura Ackerman is focused on the family and the holidays. But she knows her husband is leaving again, and what to expect.

"The anxiety starts building two weeks before," she said. "After he leaves, there are two weeks of depression. You're the sole adult. The one you love is not there."

Then, she'll have inevitable reminders of Brian's absence: the empty chair at the dinner table and Kathryn pointing to the sky at a passing plane.

"When I'm not home, every plane is mine," Brian Ackerman said. "Katie waves at all of them and says, 'Hi, Daddy!' It's her way of saying she misses me."


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/askcolimore.