It was 1:30 on a cool March morning in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Capt. Kelly Carey was sleeping soundly and loudly (his daughter Claudia claims he is a world-class snorer) when his BlackBerry Tour rang. Scrambling from his bunk, Carey grabbed the phone, only to see that he had just missed a call from home—Seaford, Delaware.
Carey has 20 years of Army service—16 in the National Guard—and 12 years as a teacher, including a stint last year as principal of Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Seaford. So panic
has been scrubbed from his psyche. But the early hour, and the fact that the expensive-to-use Tour is reserved for emergencies, made him uneasy.
Quickly, he texted back: “What’s up? Something wrong?”
In Seaford, where it was 4 p.m. the previous day, Carey’s wife, Rachael, and 11-year-old Claudia were engaged in a contest of wills—over the term “double-space.”
“Claudia was having trouble completing her research paper for school,” explained Carey in a recent phone interview from Kandahar, “and she didn’t believe her mom about what ‘double-space’ meant, so Rachael called me. I responded with a text to Claudia via my wife that said, ‘Your Mother is right,’ and I explained what double-space meant.”
Then he added, “You should stop being as hard-headed as your old man. I’m the only one allowed to be hard-headed.”
Dilemma solved, Claudia finished the paper and wound up getting an A. Carey went back to sleep with a contented smile.
“Not a big deal to us adults,” he says, “but at the time it was a crisis for my daughter.”
Carey is among six members of the Delaware Army National Guard who last June volunteered to join the Mississippi Army National Guard’s 184th Expeditionary Sustainment Command for deployment to Afghanistan. After two months of training in the United States, the 184th arrived at Kandahar Air Base last August and assumed logistics support for American and coalition forces. They return home late this month or in early August.
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All told, there are currently 525 Delaware Army and Air Guard personnel deployed in Afghanistan. While these citizen-soldiers deal with the dangers, discomfort and homesickness that come with being in a war zone, their partners back home face a different set of challenges. Single-handedly, they manage the quotidian events of family life, such as the definition of “double-space,” that can quickly turn into crises. Email, Skype and cell phones make communication easier and more frequent than in previous wars, but, as one wife says, “I miss having him at arm’s length, right here with me.”
She and the other spouses can take some solace in the U. S. military’s attempt to give their loved ones a taste—literally—of home, even in the heart of Taliban country. What could be more American than T.G.I. Friday’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Nathan’s hot dogs? That’s exactly what soldiers and airmen can find on the base’s quarter-mile-long “boardwalk,” where they also can buy T-shirts, Afghan rugs, cell phones and MP3 players.
More than 26,000 troops from several nations are assigned to the airfield, so a smorgasbord of food is available. Lt. Col. Vincent Orlando, of Milford, is partial to a lunch of stir-fry at the Asian chow hall near his work area. In the morning, he can order an omelet at the American chow hall. Bottled water is everywhere—the local water is undrinkable—and the Post Exchange sells standard PX items—toiletries, snacks, cigarettes, but no alcohol. (General Order No. 1A basically prohibits consumption of alcohol by service members in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait.)
Most areas are air conditioned, including the “mods”—modular units, which sleep four to eight people, depending on rank. For entertainment, almost everyone depends on laptops to watch movies, read books and use email. Television reception is limited, but Orlando did catch a live broadcast of the Super Bowl at 3 a.m. There is an occasional rock concert on the camp’s stage.
Despite these very American amenities, the airfield is still in a combat zone, and the threat of a rocket attack hangs in the air, along with the constant stench from the “poo pond,” where waste from the entire base is disposed.
There are plenty of recreational facilities, including volleyball and basketball courts and soccer fields, and everyone seems to be into physical fitness. Troops can choose from a U.S. or a NATO gym. “The NATO gym is cleaner,” says Orlando. “You even have to take off your shoes before you enter, then put on sneakers after you go in. And it’s all machines. The American gym is a little more gritty, with weights. And it smells like a gym. That’s where I go.” He says he has dropped 25 pounds since arriving in Kandahar.
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Kelly Carey, meanwhile, is a dedicated runner who has competed in half-marathons and a 24-hour endurance run on the base. Most races are conducted indoors, he says, because the dust and sand “make running 10 miles outside like smoking a pack of cigarettes.”
Running aids his mental state as well as his physical conditioning. “Anything that helps me focus on this rather than thinking about home is good,” he says.
Sgt. 1st Class John Beers is another workout buff. “I pray and attend church, too,” he says. “That helps a lot.”
And while they miss their families and the comforts of home (for Orlando, sitting in his recliner and watching Phillies or Eagles games; for Beers, Mexican food and scrapple), they are dedicated to their mission. Beers has distributed shoes, coal stoves and tents to Afghans. “You can’t believe how they live,” he says. “Some live in caves.”
Adds Orlando, “We’re making a difference, and it really feels good.”
Back here in Laurel, Beers’ wife, Cherise, keeps herself and their 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son busy with Bible study classes and other activities, including frequent trips to the Salisbury YMCA.
She says her husband, an Army recruiter with 17 years in the military, had always wanted to volunteer for deployment. “But we just sort of skated around it and put it off. We were having children and things like that. But I knew he would’ve never been happy unless he served his country.”
Beers calls Cherise “an amazing woman,” but both agree that this, his first overseas deployment, has been tougher than either expected. “My daughter took it really hard when I came home for a 15-day leave and then had to come back,” says Beers. “And whenever I speak with my son, he asks when I’m coming home. It’s kind of hard to answer that, you know?”
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Beers’ duties include security details that escort VIPs to surrounding areas. Carrying his M-4 carbine, he is the only one of the six Delawareans assigned to the Mississippi Guard unit who sometimes goes “outside the wire.” That exposes him to potential attack from the infamous IEDs (improvised explosive devices), although he usually rides in a 20-ton MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle). He says he has been ordered not to comment on whether he has ever been under attack.
Beers jokes that his wife threatened to break his legs if he ever volunteered again, but he knows her support is unconditional. Says Cherise, “I really miss him, but I would stand behind him if he decided to do it again.”
Vincent Orlando’s wife, Liza, is a major in the Air Force Reserve, with 22 years of
service as a trained combat medic, so she would seem better equipped than most wives to handle her husband’s deployment. On the contrary, she says, “Because of my training, I know what can happen when he’s en route from point A to point B. It’s a different perspective, so you worry a lot more. But you also respect what he’s doing, because that’s what we do, that’s what we train for.”
She misses the man who calls her “General,” or “Princess,” especially at night, “when everything quiets down, even if he falls asleep on the couch. And he makes my coffee every morning. I miss that. And his smile; he’s always smiling.”
According to Capt. Andrew Werner, a chaplain with the Delaware National Guard, the Department of Defense recently has increased its programs for military families. Through the DOD’s Yellow Ribbon Programs, Werner says, “There is support before, during and after deployment in a litany of different areas—psychological and financial counseling, employment assistance, events for families while their spouses are deployed.”
He says most complaints from deployed personnel stem from lack of privacy and home issues. “The home issues are heightened by Facebook and other social media, which today’s military personnel are really into. It’s a morale builder when things are going well, but communications is a two-edged sword. A soldier may see something on Facebook that upsets him, and it’s tough when he’s thousands of miles away.”
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Rachael Carey has taken advantage of some of the Yellow Ribbon programs for her and her four daughters. In addition to Claudia, there is Alexis, 18, Victoria, 8, and 5-year-old MaryBeth.
The Careys are a close-knit family, and photos of the six of them are scattered throughout their house on a cul-de-sac in one of Seaford’s upscale neighborhoods. The girls obviously miss their father, and Rachael must be both mom and dad. “Sometimes,” she says, “the younger ones all want to talk at once. And at night they want to climb in bed with me. I can’t snuggle with all three. But with lots of help from Alexis, we’re handling it.”
Emailing from Kandahar, her husband agrees. “They have been so incredibly strong through all this. I am just amazed at how they are thriving. In fact, all three of my youngest daughters just got all A’s on their report cards. We were very proud of them.”