With violence down in Iraq and the economic crisis front and center, for many Americans the ongoing wars have faded to a distant rumble. But daily life is very different for the hundreds of thousands of military families that have watched their loved ones deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them again and again, over the past seven years. On a recent visit to Fort Bliss, Texas, one of the Army's largest bases, National Journal interviewed more than a dozen officers and enlisted personnel about military service and family separation. What follows are four of their stories, in their own words.
Sgt. Rudy Alvarado, 27, has served in Iraq twice--the first time as a new husband, the second time as a new father. He spoke about the strain on himself, his young son, and his wife, 25.
Alvarado: The first deployment was really hard for her. We were newlyweds. She took it really hard; she was always crying. It ended up being a year-plus that I was gone.
The second deployment, she cried still, but she managed a lot better. She was used to it, and almost 100 percent of her focus was on raising our son. That deployment for her went by so quick she was like, "Wow, you're already home?"
My son was only 4 months old when I left. When I came back, he was 14, 15 months. He didn't know who I was. That was where all my issues were, with him getting used to me again. You've got to be patient with kids at that age. You can't come home and say, "I'm your dad." They're too young, and they're used to a one-parent family, basically. It took a couple of months for him to get used to me.
He's 3 now, and it's good because he doesn't remember it. Now you have to pry him off me, because he wants to hang out with me and copy me all the time. It's pretty funny now.
* * *
Maj. Lance Varney has served in the Army for more than 20 years, fighting in the 1991 Gulf War and deploying twice to Iraq since 2003. The strain on families in the 1990s, he said, is nothing compared with what it is now.
Varney: When I first came in the Army, we were at peace. The big deal was, "Oh, we're going to deploy to the National Training Center [at Fort Irwin, Calif.] for 30 days." That's just a drop in the bucket now. Working on the weekends, working at night, working, working, working. Honestly, it's tough.
I have two children, twins, 5 years old, a boy and a girl. I've missed two and a half years out of their five years. This last [deployment] was my longest because we were there for over 12 months.
When you miss birthdays, obviously you feel bad, but moreover, it's the development of the child. As a father, the time that you spend with your youngsters is so important, and when you don't do that, you can sort of look back and say, crikes, you know, they're getting one half from mom, and they're not getting the other half from dad. I hope that this will not negatively impact them as they grow up.
My wife is highly supportive, and that really helps. The good news is that she understood what she was getting into when we were married. She's very patient, and she's self-sufficient. I never get yelled at for not being there. She would inform me about stuff, but she understood that I was about as stressed out as I needed to be.
It has to be hard on younger couples, the folks that might not be fully mature yet. I can picture several people that I have worked with who are no longer married to the same person.
Both tours, we made a big effort to stay in touch. My first tour, I did have access to a phone so I could talk to her once a week. This last rotation, mostly we did video-teleconferences back and forth. It was an awesome thing. It's sort of tough because all of the emotion of missing them comes back a little bit, but for the most part it's just good. It was extremely important for the children to make sure that they see their father, that he's not just out, gone. He's far away but he's still connected to the family.
* * *
As hard as it is for those who leave their families behind, marriages between two soldiers who deploy at once can be hit even harder. Amanda Tanguy and her husband joined the Army in November 2006. In 2007, they deployed to Iraq, but with separate units. She has just turned 21.
Tanguy: I ended up getting married pretty young, but it's working well. We went to Vegas and got married real fast before we joined. They told us if we weren't married we'd get separated; they said financially it was a better move.
But in Iraq, I didn't talk to [my husband] at all. We weren't on the same forward operating base, and his FOB didn't have Internet. That was hard, not being able to talk to him the whole time. [After getting home] we had to completely get to know each other again. He matured more than I ever imagined. I'm very glad he went to Iraq; he's become a man. But we're really distant now. We're not so, you know, "in love."
[As a woman in the Army] you get a lot of attention. You get kind of used to it. Everyone always wants to talk to you or hear your words of wisdom. Whenever guys have a problem with the wives at home, it seems like most of them would come to me. But we're too busy to be thinking about any sexual anything.
I was out there [in Iraq] and I found out that my uncle died from a brain tumor. And that was the worst day of my life, just because I couldn't go home and have any closure to his death, I couldn't really talk to any of my family. I found out over an e-mail. My squad leaders and my friends in my platoon really helped me through that; they were there for me.
* * *
In the Army, the leaders tasked with taking care of the troops, day in and day out, are the senior sergeants. Sgt. Maj. Bill Lindsey has been a soldier for 20 years, including tours to Iraq. He is an instructor at the Army's Sergeants Major Academy, which prepares soldiers for promotion to the highest grade of noncommissioned officer.
Lindsey: It's more difficult now for the young soldiers. When they come into the Army now, the only thing they know is deployments. Their whole life is just combat deployments, move to a new brigade, help to get that brigade stood up, and deploy again.
Any time that's not consumed by training is consumed by taking care of the soldiers' families and their issues. One of the keys as a senior NCO is to identify those issues well in advance of the deployment. You may be helping families from when you leave the office until 9 or 10 at night, and a lot of weekends.
Regardless if you're a civilian or a soldier, I guess there are some issues you don't want to discuss: We're having financial issues; we're having marriage relations issues. Those are the issues that people don't like to disclose to someone else. As a leader, you have to go that extra mile to get the families to have confidence in you and know that you're not going to disclose their [problems] to anyone else. Then you start to break through, and their issues start to surface.
I had one soldier who came from Korea. He got married en route to Fort Bliss and showed up with a kid and a wife and no car, no money. He pretty much just had a couple of duffel bags of clothes and a small blanket for the child and that was it. When an issue appears like that, that's when you stop what you're doing as a leader and you need to take care of that family right away. So leaders in the company, we got together, and probably within five days we had him in government quarters, we had his government quarters outfitted with the beds, TVs, dressers, clothes, within four days. Families like that appreciate it when you go out of your way. [Today] he's one of the hardest-working soldiers.
We had a soldier, and his pregnant wife was due, and it was pretty close to the deployment. I sat down with the soldier and said, "I want the detailed plan on who's going to be with your wife when she gives birth, A to Z." She actually went into labor before we deployed, when we were out at the National Training Center. She actually called my wife and said, "Can you give me a ride to the hospital?" My wife stopped what she was doing and stayed with her.
When I was a young soldier and we were a young couple, there were probably times that we weren't taken care of by leadership. We've gone through that pain and really understand what it's like. That really gives [my wife] the extra drive to take care of families now. [She can say] "I remember what it's like to be a pregnant spouse away from home and nobody really cared."
On the positive side, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped the Army get better at taking care of families. The Army just in four or five years has stood up more programs to help the families than they did the 15 years previously, when I was a young soldier.
Between  and the most recent deployment I went on last year, it has just grown tremendously--increasing the staff within Army Community Service, providing additional programs that weren't there before. Initially, I don't think they had the staff they needed to handle the back-to-back deployments and the family crises.
Since 2004, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. has conducted in-depth interviews with more than 110 military service members about their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. The resulting series of articles has covered subjects ranging from rules of engagement and National Guard call-ups to the role of armored vehicles in urban combat. For more information and links to previous articles, see www.nationaljournal.com/oralhistory. The author can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in the October 18, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.
DON'T MISS TODAY'S TOP STORIES