WASHINGTON – For Shawn Marsteller, the last few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster.
Her husband, Jeff Marsteller, is an Army captain whose unit is training the Iraqi Army to speed security force readiness. Her unit involves four children at home.
Shawn left home on April 4 to deploy to Iraq. Only a few days later, the Pentagon announced that deployments would be extended from 12 to 15 months. With the Army, things are almost never certain, but Jeff's tour is expected to be stretched through next summer. Then the debate over the emergency war spending dragged on. Congress finally passed the bill — paying for troop equipment and field operations — just before Memorial Day, a victory in Shawn's eyes.
"Washington seems so far away from, I guess, the real world because we're struggling with such basic stuff, and they're struggling with such higher level issues," Marsteller, 40, said Tuesday, speaking by phone from her home just outside Fort Riley, Kansas.
"But I am glad that they finally got the bill through. I am glad that there's not going to be a question that the soldiers are going to get what they need. I can't even believe that they would be arguing over something like that, because I'm looking at it a different way than they are," she said.
Marsteller is among thousands of families at home coping with the stress of the April troop deployment order, the daily fluctuations of Washington politics and the hourly fluctuations of home life.
The effect of long deployments on families is an ongoing topic of discussion and debate among Army officials, and the hardship generally has become a specific part of the message the Defense Department puts out with any announcement of troop buildups, deployments or tour extensions. Along with the April announcement, the Pentagon said that soldiers returning from the longer deployments are guaranteed to be stationed at home for not less than a year.
According to numbers provided by the Army, about 105,000 active-duty soldiers will be affected by the deployment extensions: 80,000 in Iraq, 7,000 in Kuwait and 18,000 in Afghanistan. Families stationed at about a dozen U.S. Army posts will be affected.
About 65 percent of all active-duty soldiers are married, and about 60 percent of those have children, Army officials said.
Marsteller spent her Memorial Day weekend in Iowa, but she said she didn't spend much time talking about her husband or the war. She said military families talk about the troubles of dealing with the war, but outside military circles, "it's like the elephant in the room."
"It's almost like if you talk about it, then you're going to bring something bad upon yourselves," she said. And often, people not in the military don't quite know how to approach the subject.
But at home, the subject is always present even if it's not talked about.
Her 9-year-old son is the most intent on following the news out of Iraq, Marsteller said. He has said before he's afraid his father won't return this time around, and makes an effort to follow news out of Iraq.
"If they hear about it, we'll talk about it," Marsteller said.
She said she's also put more pictures of her husband around the house because her youngest son, who is 4, said he couldn't remember what his father looked like.
What's equally important is trying to stay busy and keep everyone's mind off the obvious. The girls are starting softball clinics, the boys are playing soccer this summer. Church camp is coming up.
"We just try to fill lots of time," she said.
Nancy Bourget, 42, who lives on-base at Fort Hood, said her husband has been deployed to Iraq since November. Staff Sgt. Arthur Bourget, 43, is a combat engineer currently stationed in Baghdad. It's his first deployment since the 2003 invasion, but he also went to Iraq in 1991 as part of Operation Desert Storm.
Just after the troop deployment orders came through, Bourget said she believed she was prepared for her husband to be gone a little longer than expected.
"Because he's already been through it, I just worry a little bit more about him. ... I know what's going on and I just keep the family going every day. Nothing's changed. We still go to school and we still go to work, and we just wait for him to come home," she said at the time.
Nancy said she and her three girls were doing their best to stay busy between dance and music classes, school, minor-league baseball games and other activities. She said a good support network is available on base, and there are plenty of people with whom she can talk who are going through the same thing.
They're also making preliminary plans for Arthur's two-week "r-and-r." Although it's unclear when he'll come home for his mid-tour break, they know where he's going: Disney World.
"That's his favorite spot in the whole place," she said.
The family is able to stay in touch frequently through instant messaging, Bourget said, which helps to ease concerns. Arthur also plays checkers with the children over the Internet — and "has yet to win a game."
In the weeks since the deployment news broke, Bourget said it's been more difficult to stay in touch because of workloads on both ends. But it's a huge relief when her she gets an e-mail from her husband.
"I get so excited to read something from him whether it’s a simple 'I miss and love you and my babies, take care of yourself and give the girls a kiss for me.' ... It’s always Art that tells me time to slow down, Nancy, and do something nice for yourself. He reminds me constantly to take time out for me," Bourget said via e-mail this week.
She said that the politics were not so much of a worry though, putting her faith in the government, the military and the country.
"Frankly, I really didn't pay too much attention to the political debate surrounding the [emergency war] bill," she wrote.
"It really doesn't have a direct impact on me or my husband. I know that the American people support our troops and the politicians will find a way to provide those troops with the best equipment possible. I also know that Fort Hood makes sure that our combat soldiers receive the best training and advanced equipment available," she continued.
Back at Fort Riley, Marsteller is coursing through the time before her husband finishes his Iraq tour. Jeff's birthday — his 43rd — was this week, and she said she mailed him some goodies, party favors — "kids stuff" to lighten the mood.
The family was supposed to be assigned to Italy beginning next year, but it's not clear if that will happen with the longer deployment, Marsteller said. With the longer deployment, Jeff likely will miss his daughter's high school graduation.
Because she lives off base, it's difficult to be in touch with the military family support groups, but she knows plenty of military families through her church that she can lean on. The kids are involved in school groups for active-duty families and they can get to know each other and talk about their stress
Marsteller said she's just counting down time until the family can be reunited once again.
"I guess it gets easier as time goes on, because you just accept life as it is," Marsteller said.