A family deploymentby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
Rockville, Minn. — For the past few months, Sheri Howe's five-bedroom house has been nearly empty. Her husband, Jeff, has been deployed in Iraq for nearly a year.
Howe's two oldest sons also are serving in the military. Sam, 22, who is on active duty in the Army, will be deployed to Afghanistan in March, shortly after her husband, a major in the National Guard, returns home later this month.
"And then there's a good chance down the road that the older one will be gone, too," Howe said of her son Joe, who is in the National Guard. "So yeah, a lot of changes [ahead] in a year, year and a half."
Sheri Howe is nervous about what lies ahead, including how her husband might have changed during his second tour in Iraq. She remembers how difficult his first homecoming was in 2006.
"When he came back, he had a shake from the end of his fingers to his elbow -- that his arm shook," she said. "That was a good couple of months, and then he cried a lot."
During his first deployment, Jeff Howe was the commander of a transportation company of 250 soldiers. His soldiers moved equipment up and down roads, and came in contact with numerous improvised explosive devices. Fourteen of his soldiers were wounded. One was killed.
Sheri Howe recalls someone in the military advised her not to give her husband the impression that she knew what he was going through.
"And I said, 'I can't even pretend to know what he's going through because he doesn't know what I went through when he was gone,' " she said. "And that person was amazed because he had never thought about our end of it, that we're back here."
On a recent night, Howe's home is not so empty. As she cooked dinner for her 19-year-old daughter Melanie, home from college, and her youngest son, 14-year-old Mitchell, Howe said each member of the family has dealt with the deployments differently. But they all have been filled with a mix of pride, sadness, anxiety and feelings of isolation, she said.
For Mitchell, his father's absence has often been particularly tough.
"When I am high stressed, I tend to fall behind in school," he said. "It's just something I go through. I'm at a point where I just don't care."
Those stressful moments weigh heavy with thoughts about his dad's safety.
As of last month, there have been at least 4,300 military casualties in Iraq since the beginning of the war. They include three members of Minnesota's Red Bull Division who were killed during Jeff Howe's current deployment. So the worries are very real.
When his father first went to Iraq, Mitchell was in the second grade.
"When I was that age, my dad was probably my best friend and it was really, really hard on me," he said. "Like just going from always having him there to not having him there at all."
Experts say such emotions are quite normal when children are separated from their parents -- regardless of the circumstances.
"When you add on top of that the reason that their parent is not there is because they are in what the kid knows is a potentially dangerous situation, that can add a significant burden for the children," said Sonja Batten, a clinical psychologist who has worked closely with military veterans.
It is important to let children know these feelings are normal, and remind them that their parent is with a trained unit doing everything possible to stay safe, said Batten, deputy director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
The emotions Mitchell and Melanie Howe feel while their father is in Iraq make it hard for them to talk to him often. But they've worked to keep him involved when there are important family events. Last year the National Guard and Rocori High School jumped through hoops to arrange a live video chat through Skype so that Jeff Howe could watch Melanie's high school graduation ceremony. But it left Melanie sad.
"And it just frustrated me more," she said. "Yeah, I can see you and I can talk to you," she said of her father. "But I can't hug him. That was the only thing that was frustrating. Other than that it was kind of cool to see him."
She likes to keep conversations with her dad short.
"I mean it's probably not the nicest to do to him," she said. "I'm a little selfish and rather have it ... have it be so that I'm okay."
Speaking via Skype from his base in Basra a few weeks ago, Jeff Howe said he thought his children simply didn't like talking to him via a Web camera. Howe said he and his wife communicate often but have not set any rules about what they will talk about. Everything is fair game.
"But there's times when the conversation gets to a certain point, you just say, 'You know, I don't think we should talk right now. Look, I'll call you back tomorrow,' and let things cool off and let cooler heads prevail," he said.
ALONE AND MISUNDERSTOOD
Howe said some of those tough conversations include times when his wife has vented, largely about people who don't understand their deployment experience. He said people often thank soldiers for their service, but families don't receive enough credit for their sacrifices.
"I can't say enough what the families go through and the struggles they go through to give us the opportunity to do this, because they didn't sign the dotted line, we did," said Howe, a fire marshal for the city of Waite Park.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have higher deployment rates of National Guard and Reserve service members than any other conflicts in history. Experts say guard and reserve families don't receive the same kind of support available to families living on military bases.
Sheri Howe said people often assume that with each deployment, overseas duty becomes easier for the family at home, but it doesn't. Each deployment brings new changes for the soldier and family.
"The kids change, your reactions are different, and the fears are a little different as far as when they come back and even when they're gone," she said. "It's kind of the unknown."
Jeff Howe also doesn't know what he'll experience when he comes home the second time. He will arrive as one of his sons prepares for deployment. Both he and his wife still have raw memories of his first return home -- the shakes and the tears.
Howe suspects he'll handle things better this time, but admits that's what he thought last time.
"Things pop into your head," he said of difficult memories. "I cried with the drop of a hat. I'm struggling now. ... That's the part that really bothered me. It was really very, very frustrating not to be able to control your emotions when you controlled everything around you."
This time home, he plans to take better advantage of the Beyond The Yellow Ribbon Program, a Minnesota National Guard effort to help soldiers re-integrate into civilian life. The program regularly checks in with soldiers the first three months after they've returned home. It now includes a one-year evaluation and a conference for wounded soldiers.
The Howes say the multiple deployments have strengthened them. Sheri Howe said while it's difficult, it's certainly possible for military families and their marriages to survive.
Mitchell said he's matured a lot and feels strong enough emotionally to support his dad upon his return. As a college freshman Melanie Howe is excited to start a support group for students who come from military families.
Jeff Howe is eager to spend time with his family. He knows the transition back to civilian life won't be easy -- and that it will be a while before his family gets a break from deployments.