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Army wife soldiers on at home

Griswold - Jennifer Herkner snatched the ringing cell phone from her purse.

It was the first time her husband, Steven, had called since he returned to Afghanistan two days before, following two weeks at home on leave.

Every time they talk, Jennifer knows those could be their last words to each another. At the airport, she had not wanted to let go of Steven in case it was their last hug.

"I don't want to be morbid, but I have to keep my guard up. It could happen," Jennifer said. "It's not like I think about it consciously, but it's always in the back of my head."

Steven was calling to find out whether their daughter had recovered from a case of strep throat. Sydney had returned to her first-grade class that day, Jennifer said after she stepped outside of Charlene's Diner to talk.

The conversation was short since Steven pays for costly minutes on a cell phone rather than wait in a line of soldiers to use a phone in a makeshift Internet cafe.

In Afghanistan, Connecticut National Guard Staff Sgt. Steven Herkner says he has to worry about staying alive.

In Griswold, Jennifer Herkner has her own worries. She's raising a son who needs close to constant supervision and a daughter who acts out to draw her mother's attention. She takes care of the household responsibilities and two dogs, one of which Steven sent back from Afghanistan.

She fears that the year without a father at home will have a lasting impact on their two children.

And she worries whether Steven will stay safe.

Steven thinks his wife sometimes has the tougher duty at home.

Steven the soldier

Jennifer lies and says "fine" when Steven calls and asks how things are going.

The National Guard has made it clear to her that troubles at home should be kept from soldiers. They need to focus on the mission, not on bills or a bad report card.

But Steven can tell by the sound of Jennifer's voice that everything is not fine. He can hear Sydney and Cole fighting in the background.

He gets frustrated. He questions whether it is his fault for leaving.

Jennifer knows her husband is not to blame. But she also knows the children would not be so angry and upset if their father were home.

Cole, at 4, has endless energy and no fear. Sydney, two years older, is reserved and sensitive. She does not like noise and gets upset when her brother gets too close to her, which makes him invade her space more.

Jennifer was pregnant with Cole the first time Steven went to Afghanistan, in 2006. Sydney began having night terrors that made her cry and scream for hours.

Alone in Griswold with a newborn and a toddler, Jennifer retreated to Kentucky to be with her family. Steven returned when Cole was 15 months old. Cole got used to having his father around and Sydney slept better.

Then the National Guard asked Steven to go back to Afghanistan. He felt he could not tell his subordinates to go while he stayed home.

"As a leader, how do you stand in front of these guys and say, 'OK, I'm the guy in charge but I'm not going with you? Have a nice deployment and when you get back, you have to listen to me,'" Steven said. "If one of them got hurt, I would never forgive myself. Regardless of whether there was nothing I could do, at least I was there."

"If he was here and something happened, it would get the best of him," Jennifer said. "It would be worse than dealing with this deployment."

Life at home

In late August, shortly before Steven was due home for a two-week break, Sydney and Cole jockeyed for position at the top of the slide in their backyard. He almost kicked her. She slapped his back.

Cole turned and knocked Jennifer's glasses askew. He refused to sit down as she asked.

Jennifer sat on the slide and held him close to her, with her hands over his arms. He tried to bite.

"Count," she said, bouncing him on her lap. "Breathe. What's wrong with you?"

"I want my Daddy."

"I'm sorry you miss Daddy. It's OK to be sad, but it's not OK to hurt Mommy."

Sydney and Cole began to play again. They soon started arguing over who would use which swing.

In early September, Steven was briefly reunited with his family. Snowball, an Afghan sighthound, rested by his feet as he sat on the couch.

Snowball was a stray the soldiers grew attached to. They chipped in to send her stateside, where she has learned to bark loudly and often. Cole often gets scolded for putting his hands in the dog's mouth.

Steven played with both children until Jennifer said it was bedtime.

"I'm trying not to interfere in the way she does things," Steven said. "They have a set bedtime, set shower time. They know I'm back, but I don't know the routine. They play the mommy/daddy thing. 'Can I stay up?' 'Sure you can.' And she'll get mad at me. That's not the right answer, but I didn't know."

Steven, 44, has served in the National Guard and active-duty Army for about 25 years. He is assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) for the 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment and has worked fixing aircraft at the Groton-based 1109th Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot.

Seven deployments, including four to combat zones, have taken a toll on him physically and mentally.

His shoulders, neck and knees bother him from carrying gear and walking up mountains. He has trouble hearing after being around loud plane engines and explosions. He has not slept well in years because of the things he has seen.

After returning from Afghanistan the last time, Steven barked orders at his family. Jennifer reminded him they were not raising "little soldiers."

He sees the world in black and white. The gray "frustrates the hell" out of him, he says. Jennifer, 36, a trained occupational therapist, is analytical. She sees shades of gray.

Steven asked a Veterans Affairs staffer why he was having trouble adjusting after that homecoming in 2007 and not the others.

It was not the one deployment, he was told. It was the six catching up to him.

Steven still has little patience when the kids test him instead of following orders. Jennifer wonders how many times he can "flip the switch from combat mode to family mode" before that switch sticks.

Their marriage

Jennifer had to take Steven to the airport to return to Afghanistan on their wedding anniversary, Sept. 9.

That morning, they celebrated simply by wishing each other a happy anniversary. They had wanted to go out to dinner the night before but they did not have anyone to watch the kids.

Steven has been in a combat zone or away for military training for half of their seven-year marriage.

They were married by a justice of the peace in Kentucky in 2003 while he was home from Iraq for her father's funeral. Jennifer's friend picked out a dress and shoes while Jennifer was at work; Steven wore the uniform he brought home for the funeral. They bought rings at the local jewelry store.

They had met in Kentucky the previous year when he visited friends there. They had planned to wait until after the deployment to get married but moved up the date because Steven was home.

Steven flew back to Iraq 12 hours after saying "I do."

"What's that saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder?" Steven said sarcastically. "Yeah, deployments are great."

Steven thinks this year-long absence will make the family "stronger."

"I know it's tough on Jen but I think it makes us all stronger. We find out what we can deal with or do without each other," he said in his living room. Jennifer has "stepped up" and shown she can "handle two kids and a house," he said.

Jennifer was silent. Her face showed her disagreement. Later she said Steven's response was politically correct and lacked emotion.

"I would never do this just to get stronger," she said. "I've been given more than my fair share of challenges. I feel like I've passed. I don't need any more testing. I've passed and I should be left alone."

Being the "mommy, daddy, caretaker, chef, landscaper and chauffeur" is exhausting, she said. She grinds her teeth and gets headaches.

Cole suffers from multiple medical ailments, including asthma, reflux, stomach, intestinal and ear problems and the inability to absorb multiple food proteins. Jennifer took him to Boston recently for a learning and emotional assessment to try to get to the root of his behavior.

The only break Jennifer has is at night, after the children are asleep. She puts on a headset and watches the show "Army Wives" on her laptop.

Steven's unit is scheduled to return home around Thanksgiving. Steven said he would most likely say no if he were asked, rather than ordered, to go overseas again.

"It depends on where we are as a family, how old the kids are, what my job would be. There are a lot of contributing factors," he said. "Right off the top of my head, 'no.' I'm getting up there in age, so 'no' with a question mark."

Jennifer would never tell him not to go.

"It's not my place," she said. "Some people will think I'm crazy for saying that. It's his choice."

Jennifer said she tends to focus on how chaotic her life is right now, but she is proud of Steven and proud of his values.

Dangers of combat

Five soldiers in Steven's battalion were wounded when their armored vehicle hit a roadside bomb during an Easter Sunday patrol.

Steven's friend broke his neck, back, pelvis and left leg. His right leg had to be amputated. He was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center with two of the others. The other two returned to combat.

A Waterford soldier in the same unit, Staff Sgt. Edwin Rivera, was killed in May. Another member, Sgt. Scott DeLuzio, rushed home in August after his brother, Sgt. Steven J. DeLuzio, was killed while serving in Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard.

"It always hits home when somebody gets killed, especially if you know them or worked with them before," Steven said. "We all know the risks involved when we put on the uniform. If we didn't do it, who would?"

The U.S. military has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, the most since the war began nine years ago. Many have been sent to Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. The number of American casualties recently rose above 350, making 2010 the deadliest year of the war so far.

Jennifer attended the Rivera funeral, representing her husband. She sobbed in the car afterward.

"It could be any one of us wives standing right there burying our husband," she said. "It could be any one of us, any day. You just never, ever know."

As the communications sergeant, Steven supports the companies at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam northeast of Kabul in Laghman Province, assisting them with tactical communications, including satellites and radios.

Sometimes in phone calls home he will say to Jennifer, "You know I love you, kiss the kids for me. You know what that means." It means he is leaving the base for a mission in the dangerous countryside.

"I get sick to my stomach," Jennifer said. "Then I just have to wait for the next phone call from him to say he's OK."

"You never think it's going to be you," Steven said. "It's always going to be the other guy. If you thought about what could happen, you wouldn't go out and do your job."

Being a soldier is all Steven has ever wanted to do, which he attributes to "too many John Wayne movies" and the desire to carry on a family tradition. His grandfathers and uncles served.

"There's a part of me that wishes I went to college, joined a frat and drank a lot of beer," he said. "But I can't complain. And when you really look at it, I'm in the biggest fraternity in the world."


The Herkners live 23 miles from the closest military base, the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, and the support services offered there.

They are even farther from the New Haven area, where many of Steven's fellow soldiers live.

Jennifer would like to go to a family support group but it meets on a weekday night in Hartford. She does not want Sydney and Cole in the room if the group talks about soldiers who were injured or killed.

Her six siblings are in Kentucky and Steven's family is in Milford.

The isolation is hard on her while he is gone and hard on him when he is back. He cannot easily meet up for a beer to talk with other infantrymen, the only people who understand.

Others ask what war is like, but they do not really want to know, Steven said.

"Their eyes glaze over," he said. "All they want to hear is it was tough and you made it back. If you really, really want to know, sign up and go. That's the only way to ever understand anybody who has ever been there."

Jennifer visited Sydney and Cole's classes last year to talk about Afghanistan, hoping it would help her kids feel connected with their father and serve as a learning experience for the other students. Sydney's class donated supplies to a girls' school and Cole's class collected stuffed animals for an orphanage.

That project evolved into a school presentation in April, which has been designated the Month of the Military Child. This year Jennifer is trying to start a group so kids in military families can get to know one another. A librarian agreed to find books that these children would find interesting.

"For National Guard families, there are no community groups for support," Jennifer said. "You're kind of left out there. I'm hopeful it can be different. I'm going to try."

The Herkners may move to Kentucky in the future. Jennifer thinks it would be good for the children to be around their cousins, many of whom are the same age.

This time, she said, they would look for a house close to a base.

Life after Steven's departure

It was 8 a.m. on a school morning a week after Steven left, and Jennifer already had a headache.

Cole had dressed himself in a red sleeveless shirt that said "I get my muscles from my Dad" and camouflage shorts.

Sydney ran into the bathroom to say she saw a hummingbird outside. Jennifer was too busy with Cole, who was swallowing the toothpaste and splashing water on his shirt, to pay much attention.

Sydney returned to the kitchen table.

"It was in the flowers," she said to herself. "Then it flew away."

She tapped her hands on the table and ate her oatmeal alone.

Cole pressed "play" on his musical teddy bear that wears an Army uniform and is known as "Daddy Bear." Sydney put her fingers in her ears as the bear sang "Proud To Be An American." The song makes her sad.

Early in the deployment, a classmate picked on Sydney for wearing a lanyard with her father's picture. Sydney told her mother she would never wear the picture again.

Jennifer told Sydney to tell that young girl, "You get to see your Daddy every day and I won't see mine for a whole year, so don't make fun of me."

Sydney was proud that she stood up for herself in school the next day. But she still worries that the other kids will make fun of her if she cries because she misses her father.

Jennifer said Steven is judged by others, who think he should put his family first and stay home.

"They don't know him. He's a soldier," she said. "When they sign on the dotted line they know what could be asked of them. It's not that he doesn't love his family. He's in the military to support his family and provide a livelihood."

She does worry that Sydney will be insecure, as she has been since the last deployment. She fears that Cole will continue to be defiant and angry. It's in his genes to be a risk taker, she said.

Steven tells Jennifer she over-analyzes things. She disagrees.

On that September morning, Jennifer forced Cole to change into warmer clothes, packed snacks and fixed Sydney's hair. She drove them to school in a Kia Sorento with two stickers on the back window. One reads "1/2 my heart is in Afghanistan."

The other reads: "Army wife is the toughest job in the Army."


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