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Separated by War

Operation Iraqi Freedom has at least temporarily split up thousands of military marriages. Four couples discuss how they're dealing with it.

Separations are nothing new for military couples.

Most military marriages have endured temporary splits—a few weeks here, a couple months there. And for American military couples, those separations usually come during times of peace.

But this time it was war. With some 300,000 troops stationed in and around Iraq—not to mention thousands more trying to keep the peace in Afghanistan and other places—tens of thousands of couples are facing their first wartime separation. And it's scary.

Did you know? Of the 4.2 million military members, nearly 60 percent are married with families.

MP talked to four Christian couples who've been split up by Operation Iraqi Freedom—four wives who are Stateside, and two of their husbands deployed in the Middle East. (Note: Some of the couples we interviewed asked that we not use their last names or hometowns.) Despite these couples' fears and longings, we think they're handling it extremely well. And we think we all could learn a little something from these brave souls who are enduring not only the temporary break-up of their families, but putting their very lives on the line.

Here are their stories.

"I've Had Sleepless Nights"

Darren and Carla Davis
Hampton, Virginia
Married 9 years

Shortly before Darren Davis left in early January for Operation Iraqi Freedom, his family had something to do.

"We took a family picture," says Darren's wife, Carla. "It was one of those things you do, just in case."

There was no need to explain what she meant by "just in case." Carla, 37, is praying it's not the last Davis family photo.

"I'm very concerned about his safety," says Carla, holding down the home fort with children Cody, 7, and Emily, 4. "I'm not normally a worrier, but I've had a few sleepless nights. I've had some dark times when I've wondered why Darren is where he is, and why our children have to go through months without their daddy.

"It's been a difficult time, but through it all, I've felt God at my side. He always comes through at exactly the moment I need him. I can't imagine facing these uncertain times without God. He sustains me when my strength is gone and my worries surface."

Carla clings to favorite Scriptures in these difficult days, citing especially verses from Psalm 55:16-18:

"I call to God, and the Lord saves me.
Evening, morning and noon
I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.
He ransoms me unharmed from the battle waged against me

Carla says Darren, 38, a chief warrant officer in the Navy, is also clinging to God and Scripture during this time. Unfortunately, Darren, who works in logistics and support for a Naval Special Warfare Group in an unspecified location, was unable to talk to MP before we went to press.

One "side effect" of the war, says Carla, is that it brings opportunities to share her faith.

"Many people have asked me how I'm able to deal with what's going on," she says. "I tell them it's my faith in God and his love for me that sustains me. They're usually open to hear what I have to say."

Carla's busy with her duties, too—not only as a mom, but also as an administrative assistant at her church.

"My job has actually helped me during this time," she says. "It's something I love doing, and it keeps me occupied. I have a great support system, including family and friends at church whom I can call on at any time."

Carla and the kids are swamped with school, homework, soccer, and taking care of the house. The children say Mom's been a little "grouchier" since Dad's been gone. "But I'm working on that," Carla promises.

She's sure that grouchiness will disappear when Darren comes home.

"We've been making a lot of plans for when he returns," she says. "We'll take a family vacation, just the four of us having fun together and catching up on lost months. The kids and I started saving for it right after Darren deployed. The kids even decorated a 'vacation fund' can where they're saving money for the trip."

And sometime during the trip, they're bound to break from all the activity just for a family photo. This time, it won't be "just in case."

"We Knew What to Expect"

Jason and Kristin Strickland
Valrico, Florida
Married 10 years

While her husband, Jason, is deployed on the other side of the planet, Kristin Strickland keeps a schedule that sounds just as demanding as any in the military.

She gets up at 4:30 most mornings, teaches an aerobics class at 5:30, works all day as a vocational rehab counselor for the state of Florida, then spends her evenings catching up on correspondence, paying bills, keeping house, and studying for a counseling exam for her continuing education.

By Friday night, Kristin just wants to kick back and relax. But she can't stop thinking of Jason. Friday nights were their time, when they'd fire up the grill and watch a favorite movie.

"Jason would usually fall asleep about five minutes into the movie," says Kristin, 33. "But I miss that."

So she gets together with a girlfriend on Friday nights to keep the loneliness at bay.

The rest of the weekend isn't any easier. On Saturday mornings, Jason and Kristin would spend time in Bible study, talking and praying together.

"Saturday mornings are the most important time in our marriage," says Jason, 33, an Army major who is deputy chief of the Iraq Ground Forces Team at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar. "We really devoted that time to each other."

And then there's Sunday.

"That's the most difficult, missing church together," says Kristin.

Kristin says she's not "terribly worried" about Jason, since he's mostly out of harm's way in Qatar. "But sometimes I have fears of terrorist attacks where he is," she says. "Then I just pray for his protection, cry a little, and leave it at that."

Jason, in Qatar since February, and Kristin have endured separations before—including a pair of back-to-back deployments in 1996 that severely tested their marriage.

Jason had been sent to Korea for nine weeks. Then he came home—for 10 days. Then it was off to Panama for five months.

"That was the most difficult span of our relationship," says Jason, who admits he complicated things with an ill-advised comment during those precious days between deployments.

"Tensions were high because I'd told Kristin I'd be in Korea for six weeks, and it ended up being nine," Jason says. "Kristin asked me, 'If I asked you to get out of the Army, would you?' My response was, 'That depends.'

"I didn't realize what an insensitive comment that was, but it was a crushing blow to her. Basically I communicated that the Army was more important to me than she was. I thought I was just being 'logical' when I should have been tuned into the pulse of our marriage."

Adds Kristin, "When he returned from Korea, I wanted him to get out of the military so we could be together as I felt God intended marriage to be. He wasn't receptive to the idea, and then he left for Panama. I was angry. I didn't feel as though he was there to support me. When he returned, I was afraid, because the distance between us was more than I ever dreamed it would be."

When he returned from Panama, Jason and Kristin had a gut-check discussion about priorities.

"We committed to communicating and to understanding each other's point of view," says Kristin. "We prayed together for our marriage, even when we didn't feel like looking at each other. I realized I needed to let go of my expectations of what I thought our marriage should be.

"Rather than try to change him, I had to accept Jason for who he is and honor him in his commitment to the military, to what God has called him to. I forgave him, myself, and God, and I let go of my anger as a military wife. Since then, I'm proud of him, and I wouldn't choose any other lifestyle. It's so much easier to be supportive than to be angry, and my relationship with the Lord is stronger too."

In some ways, Jason and Kristin feel this deployment is easier than earlier ones, even with a war in progress.

"We were better prepared because we'd been through deployments before, and we knew more of what to expect," says Jason. "But at the same time, it's harder, because we're so much closer. I'm more in love with Kristin than ever, and not to be with my best friend and wife on a regular basis is really difficult."

Kristin's looking forward to Jason's return. "I just want to give him a huge hug," she says. "And I think we'll go for a run together. One of my favorite date nights is running together in the Florida rain. We have the best conversations when we're running together."

Jason has another idea.

"The first thing we'll do," he says, "is relax together. I hope."

Maybe they'll rent a video, and Jason can catch a long—and long-deserved—Friday night nap.

"Honestly, I'm Not Worried"

Peter and Angel
Hemet, California
Married 3 years

When you're on a Navy ship, as Peter has been for more than six months, you get the munchies. But you don't want to settle for just any old snack. You want your favorite. And when you're in a war zone, you deserve it.

That's where Peter's wife, Angel, comes in. She faithfully sends Peter his favorite junk food—bags of Doritos Salsa Verde chips, with plenty of jalapeno cheese dip on the side.

"He can't get enough of it," says Angel, who often sends Peter care packages filled with essentials such as shampoo and soap—and loads of Doritos.

That's just one way Angel, 20, stays in touch with Peter, 22, a petty officer 2nd class. (Angel couldn't tell us Peter's whereabouts or his duties because it's classified information.)

Angel also exchanges e-mails with Peter daily, and sends him a card or letter almost every day. She gets snail mail from Peter about once a week, as many as five letters at a time.

"I try to keep him updated on our everyday activities," says Angel. Those activities include the latest news on their son, Peter, who'll turn three in September.

"Our son was only saying a few words when Peter left," says Angel. "Now he's talking in complete sentences, can count, and knows all his colors."

Angel sends little Peter's latest drawings to his dad. "They're mostly just scribbles," Angel says. "But when you ask him what he's drawn, he usually says 'Daddy' or 'Daddy's ship.'"

She keeps the correspondence positive. "I let my husband know every day how much we love him and miss him and how proud we are of him," Angel says. "He has enough stress with his job. I want him to know we're okay, and he doesn't need to worry about us." Angel's not worrying about him, either.

"Honestly, I'm not worried," she says. "I have faith in my husband and his crew, that they're well-trained to do their duties. And I have faith in God he'll be kept safe."

Angel says she rarely watches war updates on TV, keeping up instead through newspapers and the Internet. She keeps busy by tending to their son, to a "deployment garden" (lettuce, tomatoes, flowers) she started when Peter shipped out, and to various renovations and paint jobs around the house.

She also volunteers at least eight hours a week with Healthy Children Connection, an organization that helps children secure health insurance and immunizations, regardless of income level. And she takes classes at a local college, where she's majoring in early childhood education and behavioral studies.


Sounds exhausting, but that's just the way Angel likes it.

"I feel the key to getting through any deployment is staying busy," she says. "I miss him, but I'm handling it well. Missing the holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas) and our anniversary (in March) were hard, but the hardest thing I've had to do was explain to our son where Daddy is and why he isn't home yet. Nothing's more heartbreaking than seeing your child cry every day, asking if Daddy can come home today.

"I don't think I could make it through if it weren't for my faith in God. He gives me comfort." Angel carries Psalm 27:1 around in her wallet as a reminder: "The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?"

Angel says family, friends, and her church are "all a big help. I've got people to talk to, to keep me busy. And if I need some time to myself, I have family to watch my son and help around the house."

Meanwhile, Angel reaches out to other military wives through her Internet ministry (www.msnusers.com/NavyWivesandFamilies). Angel describes it as "an online community where it's nice to talk to women who know what I'm going through."

Still, Angel wouldn't trade her situation for anything.

"I love the military lifestyle," she says. "I'm so proud of my husband, and his courage. This is the career he's wanted since he was a small child, and I support him completely. Sure we have to spend some time apart, but it means he's out there keeping our country free and safe. Our marriage is strong enough to handle these separations, and it makes us cherish the time we spend together even more—time that many couples take for granted."

When Peter finally comes home, Angel says they'll take some family outings—such as visiting the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, and maybe Disneyland. And she and Peter will leave their son with Grandma and Grandpa for a weekend or two away, just the two of them.

We're pretty sure they won't be taking the Doritos.

"My Heart Was Tearing Apart"

Steve and Gina
Married 18 years

It was Valentine's Day, just a week before Steve's deployment to Saudi Arabia.

He knew he'd likely miss his wedding anniversary, coming up in early June. So he wanted to surprise his wife, Gina, with something special.

He took her to a fancy restaurant, where Steve stunned Gina with a ring with five diamonds—one representing each member of their family.

"I was overwhelmed," says Gina, 38. "He said, 'I want you to wear this while I'm gone to remind you every day of my love for you. And I am coming home, by the way.'"

A week later, Steve and Gina slow-danced together the night before he left (to Steven Curtis Chapman's love song, "Echoes of Eden"). Then they spent a long time praying together.

"I could hardly contain my tears and could barely get out the words," says Steve, a 41-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel. "It was truly a bonding and cleansing experience for both of us."

And for Gina, it was a time of letting go. "I just released him into the Lord's hands," she says. "I told God, 'You gave him to me in marriage, but ultimately he's yours. And I give him over to you, because I can trust you with him. You're his Father. You're his Creator. You're his Savior.' Where else would he be safe, no matter where he is on earth?"

Though they've been married 18 years, Steve and Gina had been separated by deployment only once in the last decade—and then for only three weeks. They went through some deployments early in their marriage, but that was before they had kids. Now they have three—Amanda, 10, Jonathan, 7, and Erik, 4.

Leaving Gina was hard enough, says Steve. But leaving the kids behind made it almost unbearable.

The night before he left, Steve was packing his bags when Jonathan started to cry.

"It finally hit him that Daddy's really going to be gone for a long time," says Steve. "All I could do was hold him and pray with him."

At the airport the next day, Jonathan said, "Daddy, I'm not going to cry again. I cried last night."

But Amanda wasn't holding back.

"She lost her composure just before I headed down the concourse," says Steve, who has taken Amanda on a date almost every week since she was 2. "My heart was tearing apart. I just held her for 10 minutes and we were both full of tears. Saying goodbye at the airport is one of the toughest things I've ever done."

Meanwhile, Erik didn't quite understand what was happening. But he does wonder why Daddy's car is in the garage and Daddy's nowhere to be found.

While Steve's away, Gina has her occasional teary moments—and they come at the most unpredictable times. Such as one recent night after she took the kids to Taco Bell, a family favorite. When Steve's at home, he usually orders a soda with his meal, while Gina and the kids get water. But on this night, Gina ordered a Coke instead.

Later that night, while cleaning up the kitchen, Gina spotted the Coke cup—the cup that normally would've been Steve's. And she broke down.

"I just held onto that cup and looked at it. I said, 'This isn't normal,'" she says, her voice shaky.

Months of separation never feel "normal," but Steve and Gina are dealing with it by leaning on God.

"Being in the military can stress a marriage," says Steve, "but a good marriage cannot be broken. God is always with us. He's with me over here, and he's there in Virginia taking care of my wife and kids, being a husband and father in my absence."

Gina finds it important to make an effort to worship, even when she doesn't feel like it.

"I tell other military wives, 'When the tears are near, let them fall because the Lord doesn't despise them,'" she says. "Even if those tears are sown in sorrow, we'll reap them again in joy. So I don't put off worshiping God. I don't turn off my praise music. It's probably the best thing I can do, when times are toughest."

Keeping busy is also vital, and Steve and Gina are busy indeed.

In Saudi Arabia, Steve, a trained bomber pilot, works 12-15-hour days, seven days a week—all on the ground. He's the operations liaison officer for the Combined Forces Air Component Commander's Public Affairs. "I'm basically the combat aviation answer man for an 18-person public affairs team whose job is to tell the Air Component story to the international media," says Steve.

Gina stays in touch with Steve through daily e-mails. For security reasons, phone calls were discontinued on March 19, the day the war began. So they also exchange audiotapes—including the kids—so they can hear each other's voices.

But it's no substitute for the real thing. That'll come soon enough. The Air Force told Steve his deployment wouldn't last longer than six months, so he'll be home by late August.

"We'll have an incredible reunion at the airport," says Steve. "My family knows that just as difficult as the goodbye was when I left, the reunion will be that much more wonderful."

As we went to press, we learned that Darren, Jason, and Steve had just returned home. Peter, meanwhile, is expected to return home soon.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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