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Military Families Learn to Live on the Home Front


On a sunny Saturday in April, the White Oak National Guard Armory in Silver Springs, Maryland is full of families sitting at long tables in the armory gym. They're listening to a reunion briefing.

Mr. SHAWN LEE: (Chaplain) Now that your solider is coming home, whether you're a mother or a father, a son or a daughter or a wife, a spouse, there are some things that I need to pass along to you as part of this briefing that are benefits to you, that are supports to you.

ELLIOTT: Chaplain Shawn Lee is preparing these families for the return of Bravo Company of the 1st Division of the 115th Infantry. This Maryland National Guard Unit is finishing up an 18-month deployment to Iraq.

Mr. LEE: They're being told, especially if they're coming home to a wife, guys, it's not going to be all about sex when you get home. They mentioned that, yes, because that's how we are wired up as men, and we try and help the fellows get in touch with the fact that you guys have been by yourself for the last year and there is going to be time that is needed to reestablish the relationship.

Ms. MONICA FINK (Wife of National Guardsman): My name is Monica Bonn(ph) Fink and my husband in Scott Fink, and we're at my house in Ulny, Maryland. We have a five and half year old son, Daniel, and a daughter who is two and a half, Genevieve. My husband was previously married and he has a son, Thomas. He's nine.

ELLIOTT: Monica Fink was in the crowd at last month's briefing, though she found it hard to pay attention because her children were acting up. Monica's husband, Sergeant Scott Fink, has been on duty in Al Assad(ph) protecting fuel convoys in Western Iraq.

Ms. FINK: I worry about what he's seen, if he'll be able to adjust, if he does have like a distress disorder, how hard it will take him to go back to being not normal, I mean everyone has their things, but just go back to normal life, to the normal things that we used to do and not have like flashbacks and things like that. And then with the kids, just try to go back to how it used to be. Just the same old routine, happy.

Mr. LEE: When they get home, you'll not going to pick up where you left off. You'll pick up from where you are now. This past year you've managed to survive at home without your loved one there physically. You've had to adjust. You've probably found yourself stronger than you thought you could be.

Ms. FINK: I've changed, I'm sure a lot. I've always been independent but now I think I'm more independent because I've had to be. I worry about the adjustment with Scott, what he's going to expect when he comes home, what I expect when he's going to come home. And he's seen and go through a lot of things that I have no idea.

Mr. LEE: They've been in a hostile environment where they've had to be vigilant and a sense of hyper-vigilance to focus on the mission. Now let me tell you what happens with soldiers in that kind of environment. Although they're absorbing all of that, they're not processing all of it in the moment. It gets tucked aside for later. Be careful about expectations as they come home. The best expectation to have is none, except to be thankful that they are home.

ELLIOTT: Home for the Finks is a bright and tidy townhouse in Ulny, Maryland. A toy kitchen and other toddler toys fill half the living room. Pictures of Scott and the kids are scattered on shelves and tabletops. Monica says she talks with her children about what their dad is doing, especially her five year old son, Daniel.

Ms. FINK: I just tell him that he's fighting the bad people in Iraq, that, you know, the country needs his help, and he understands that. He tells all his friends at school what his daddy is doing. They show him on a map that daddy's in Iraq. He also knows that there's children there. We saw a CD, my husband sent a CD. I said, well, yeah, there's, you know, children there, there's families there and daddy is helping them as well, you know, so they don't get hurt from the, you know, bad people, we say.

ELLIOTT: The Finks have been married for five years. Before he was deployed to Iraq, Scott Fink worked for a telephone company and spent one weekend a month on his guard duties. Monica is an OB/GYN nurse. Her family has helped out in his absence.

Ms. FINK: My dad takes Daniel to preschool and picks him up for me, from the babysitter. And my mom watched the kids for me on Mondays, and she spends the night every Sunday night to keep me company. It's been great. I tell her I'm going to miss her not being here Sunday nights because it's just like we have a slumber party. We watch Desperate Housewives and Gray's Anatomy every Sunday night. That's our routine. So it's been great.

ELLIOTT: Has the military provided any, or the National Guard provided any sort of family support services that have helped you?

Ms. FINK. There is a family readiness group and I'm actually, I'm on the committee. I've talked to the wives on the group, but we're all very spread out. Since it's the National Guard, we're not all in the same area. It's not like we're on base, so it's very hard to get together with people. In the beginning they had monthly meetings and we always participated in that, but other than that it's very hard because we're all spread out.

ELLIOTT: What's been the hardest thing for you being now a single parent?

Ms. FINK: Never having any time for me, for myself. You just don't get a break. My break is when the kids go to sleep. I work and I take care of the kids. That's my routine in the house.

ELLIOTT: Do you hope that that will change when he gets home?

Ms. FINK: I'm hoping, yes, but I know it's not going to so much because I know he's going to want a break, but it would be just nice to have him home and not have to worry also about him, but it will be different, because he'll be home and then I can go to the grocery store by myself. I can go run errands without taking both kids with me in and out of the car seats. Just the little things will be nice to do by myself.

ELLIOTT: Did you ever have a moment or more than a moment during this time, have you ever had that feeling of being mad yourself? Have you ever been at all resentful of the fact that here you are by yourself and he's not here?

Ms. FINK: Sometime. Not resentful, but sometimes I think the soldiers think the wives are home but it's not hard for us. I mean we know it's hard for them. I think it's a different type of hard. But sometimes I just felt like he didn't realize what I'm doing and that I don't have all the time like he thinks I do. I said if it was the other way around, I don't think you could handle it all by yourself, working and both kids, and I didn't plan on being, you know, single by myself to raise kids.

ELLIOTT: Did you guys ever have a conversation about, you know, wow, did we really know this is what we were in for in the National Guard?

Ms. FINK: We've discussed it. I knew this is why Scott joined the National Guard, was to go to war. He joined the military after Desert Storm. He wanted to, you know, fight for his country. I just never thought that he would get called up. I was never into the military. I didn't know anyone until I met Scott. He did National Guard and I was like, oh, that's great. One weekend a month, that's great. But we never really thought that, no one really thinks we're going to go to war. I mean when it happens you just, you know, deal with it. He's ready to come home. He's ready.

ELLIOTT: What is the first thing you want to do when you see him?

Ms. FINK: Hug him and kiss him. So I just want to hug and kiss him, just hold him in my arms. It's been so long.

ELLIOTT: It must be really hard.

Ms. FINK: Yeah, from -- sorry.

ELLIOTT: That's okay.

Ms. FINK: I haven't cried in a really long time. It's hard. It's been a long time for me to see him.

Unidentified Man: Your attention, please. About five minutes.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELLIOTT: Back at the armory this past week, red, white, and blue banners and balloons wave under a drizzly spring sky. Homemade signs and yellow ribbons decorate the fences as a small crowd eagerly awaits Bravo Company's homecoming. Monica Fink has her daughter Genevieve in her arms. Scott's mother is keeping an eye on Daniel and Thomas. The kids are wearing little plastic Uncle Sam hats and t-shirts with Scott's picture on the front.

Ms. FINK: I'm excited for the kids. I saw him last week, so.

ELLIOTT: You did.

Ms. FINK: Yeah, I went down to Georgia.

ELLIOTT: How was that?

Ms. FINK: It was wonderful. He was surprised. He didn't know I was coming.

ELLIOTT: How's he doing?

Ms. FINK: Good. He's hanging in there, adjusting.

ELLIOTT: Little Daniel is keeping an eye out for the bus that will bring his father home.

Hey, what's that on your shirt?

Mr. DANIEL FINK (Scott Fink's Son): My dad.

ELLIOTT: What's the first thing you wanna do when you see your dad?

DANIEL: Play video games when we get home.

ELLIOTT: Do you think you'll be able to beat him?

DANIEL: (Unintelligible) He always beats me.

ELLIOTT: He always beats you. Have you been practicing?

DANIEL: Yes, but I think I'm gonna beat him today.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELLIOTT: The crowd erupts when the buses arrive, but the families have to hold back just a little longer as the soldiers line up for one last formation.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Finally, they're released to the arms of their loved ones.

Ms. FINK: Genevieve, Daddy. Daddy. You finally got your daddy home.

ELLIOTT: Scott Fink has a huge grin on his face and a bag full of camouflaged-clad teddy bears for his kids.

Sgt. SCOTT FINK: (Unintelligible) America.

ELLIOTT: He's holding two-year-old Genevieve in his arms as the boys clamor around. The oldest, Thomas, has a gift for his father.

Ms. FINK: He made you a book, Scott.

Sgt. FINK: Aw, thank you. Wow.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sgt. FINK: That's so nice.

ELLIOTT: What do you think of your kids? They've grown, huh?

Sgt. FINK: Oh, my God. She's gotten so big, so has Daniel and Thomas. Oh, my God, they're huge.

ELLIOTT: What are you looking forward to?

Sgt. FINK: Everything, everything. It's pretty weird being home.

ELLIOTT: It's been drizzling all morning, and now a harder rain moves the reunion back inside the cavernous armory. The noise level grows.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

ELLIOTT: Sgt. Scott Fink has been away from home before. After 9/11 he was deployed for a year of Homeland Security duty, but he stayed in Maryland and got to come home some weekends.

Sgt. FINK: Monica and I have been through a deployment before, and we know all the pitfalls and, you know, just, you know, it's a little bit different because I've been gone a long time, and going to a war zone, but we'll try to adjust like we did before.

ELLIOTT: What pitfall do you look out for?

Sgt. FINK: Well, she's been running the house and everything, and so when I get home, you know, I wanna take over my duties I did before, and it's kind of, I just kind of have to ease into it and not just rush it.

ELLIOTT: Unlike the other families who are still hugging and taking pictures in the armory, the Finks make their way to the door.

So what are you guys gonna do?

Ms. FINK: Go home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sgt. FINK: Yeah.

Ms. FINK: He wants to go straight home.

ELLIOTT: The Finks plan a family vacation to Florida, where Scott can surf. In June the couple will have the Catholic church wedding they never had, but tonight, Scott says, he just wants a plate of homemade spaghetti.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Stay with our program this summer. We'll follow the Finks as they adjust to life on the home front. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.