FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – The Christmas tree lighting at 101st Airborne Division (search) headquarters is usually one of the highlights of the year for post families. But this year's ceremony was a muted affair.
A freezing drizzle fell as a sparse crowd hovered around a tent and listened to the Fort Campbell High School (search) band soldier through Christmas carols with cold-stiffened fingers. The division band had been deployed to Iraq with most of the 101st's other 20,000 troops.
Still, for Jazmyne Vaughn, there was magic in the air. It was her eighth birthday, and she had a special wish as she awaited her turn on Santa's knee.
"Please," she asked when she got there, "bring my daddy home safe."
The simple wish has been on her mind and in her journal entries — up to five times daily — to her father, Supply Spc. Robert Vaughn. She is creating a record to help him recapture the year he will have missed.
In war, not all the casualties occur on the battlefield. This sprawling installation on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, largely emptied of soldiers, is filled with the walking wounded.
More than 55 Fort Campbell soldiers have died in combat, accidents, suicides or friendly fire, more than at any other single military installation. Nearly 800 more have been injured or become sick enough to require evacuation from the war zone.
Iraq is a second deployment, after Afghanistan, in a war with a shadowy enemy and no end in sight. With loved ones away for as long as a year, military families lean on each other for support.
They know that their soldiers are expected to serve — and that they are expected to endure.
Training Children to Survive War
It was her second deployment in less than six months, and Rachel Womack was proud of how she was handling it. Though she confessed to many tears in her "Deployment Therapy Book," she expressed faith that her husband's training would bring him home safely from Iraq.
But how do you train a 5-year-old boy to survive a war?
Braden had done OK when his father was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months last year. But when 1st Sgt. Lyle Womack and the 101st's 3rd Brigade were shipped out again in February, something happened.
At first, Braden was just a little quieter than usual. After a few months, he started asking to sleep with his mother. Then he began wasting away. He lost all his tummy fat. A month shy of his sixth birthday, he weighed just 34 pounds.
"They put him on supplements of Carnation Good Start made from half-and-half twice a day," says his mother. "He was taking 1,000 calories in supplements only and still losing weight. He just quit growing."
She took Braden to 11 doctors. Finally, he told one of them what was bothering him.
"He was very convinced that he was going to die — and that his daddy was going to die," his mother says. One doctor told her, "If he doesn't quit deteriorating, he could die."
So on Oct. 10, the man who had left to help free the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein came home to help save his son.
"There are no words to describe him walking down the stairs," Rachel Womack wrote in her diary. "I stood there and cried at the sight of him. There has never been a more beautiful sight than to see his handsome face looking at me."
The effect on Braden was almost immediate. After 12 days of hanging out with Dad, the little boy began thriving again. His weight is up to 40 pounds, and he is back on the growth charts.
Womack shipped out again on Oct. 22. As far as Braden is concerned, he's safe and sound at first sergeant's school.
Braden turned 6 on Nov. 17, exactly 265 days since the deployment began, leaving 100 days for one full year.
Since then, he has been counting down from 100.
Down, Not Out
For Sgt. Jennifer McKinley, the war in Iraq ended April 4. But her fight has just begun.
McKinley, an electronics technician with the 501st Signal Battalion, was hanging out the passenger-side window of a Humvee providing security with her M-16 when a front tire blew in the 110-degree heat. The truck rolled into a ditch, pinning the 27-year-old soldier's right arm beneath it.
The bones connecting McKinley's pinkie and ring fingers to her wrist were crushed. Her index finger was nearly ripped off. A doctor told her she would probably have to leave the service.
McKinley had passed up a full college scholarship to follow her father and grandfather into the Army. She had stayed with it through two pregnancies and deployments that ruined her marriage.
"I went through basic with a smile on my face — not because it was easy, but because I finally felt like I was in my element," she says with tears welling in her eyes. "This is just what I was made to do."
McKinley spent much of November shuttling to a hand specialist at Fort Hood, Texas. He says it's premature to be talking about a medical discharge.
After five surgeries, her hand is on the mend. But her soul is in agony.
She feels guilty about leaving Iraq. "I had soldiers and I had a job and a mission, and I needed to do it."
And she somehow feels that she let her family down.
"My daddy was in for 22 years," including two combat tours in Vietnam, she says. "... And I lasted six weeks in a war zone."
McKinley has joined a biweekly support group for injured soldiers and is doing better. She hopes to recover enough to rejoin a signal unit in Korea next spring.
For months, Birgit Jones had to content herself with e-mails and brief phone calls from her husband, Staff Sgt. William Jones. She has lovingly collected those notes and pasted them into an ornate scrapbook along with news stories of her husband's exploits, photographs and even an Iraqi bank note with Saddam Hussein's picture on it.
When she learned in early November that her soldier would be coming home for two weeks of R&R, she was ecstatic. But it was not the storybook reunion she had hoped for.
Jones played chess and racquetball with his two sons, Daniel, 7, and Michael, 12. But he was unusually quiet when his wife was around. He refused to put his clothes away.
"We did not get close at all," she says. "He was like a stranger — coming into MY house. That's how I felt."
After a string of murder-suicides at Fort Bragg, N.C., involving troops returning from Afghanistan in 2002, the Army began requiring psychological counseling and decompression periods for soldiers coming back from the war zone. But the two-week turnaround for these mid-war vacations left no time for such luxuries.
Sgt. Jones returned to Iraq just before Thanksgiving. A few days later, his wife got an apologetic e-mail. He explained that he couldn't bear to let himself feel at home, knowing he would soon be leaving again.
Birgit Jones' support for her husband and the war effort have not diminished. But she can't help feeling jealous of people like the civilian couple next door, whose lives are largely unbuffetted by the winds of war.
"I envy them for having a normal family life."
'I'm Ready to Go Home'
Standing on the tarmac at Campbell Air Field in the pre-dawn cold Dec. 6, Dora Evans clutched a tiny bundle wrapped in a Tigger blanket: Selena Cheyenne, a daughter who had yet to feel a father's strong embrace.
Evans and Sgt. David Diaz met about 18 months ago. When word got out that his artillery unit was being deployed, he asked her to marry him. Evans gave birth Sept. 12, but 15 days after becoming a mother, she nearly became a widow.
Diaz was sitting at the gun mount in the back of a Humvee on Sept. 27 when a homemade bomb exploded in the road. "I thought I was done for," says Diaz, who suffered burns and shrapnel wounds.
His narrow escape convinced him that 10 years of service to his country was enough. He won't re-enlist after his remaining five months in the Army.
"I'm ready to go home," he says as he waits to meet his fiancee and new daughter. "Now it's time to work for them."
Let There Be Lights
At the Christmas tree lighting, the division commander normally throws the switch. But Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus is deployed with his troops. So the task fell to Lt. Col. C.J. Buche.
She had much in common with the families shivering around her. Her husband, Lt. Col. Joseph Buche of the 101st's 3rd Brigade, is fighting in Iraq while she cares for their two children.
Her voice quivering with emotion, she reminded them that they were all in this together.
"While I am among the many missing my soldier this holiday season," she said, "I say a special prayer of thanks for what the soldiers and civilians of Fort Campbell are doing in Iraq and for all of my family here at Fort Campbell."