Most policymakers turn a blind eye, But social scientists are just beginning to document the rippling effects of multiple combat deployments on families — effects that those families themselves have intimately understood for years. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January found that wives of deployed soldiers sought mental health services more often than other Army wives. They were also more likely to report mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and sleep disorder, the longer the deployments lasted.
WAUTOMA, Wis. — Life changed for Shawn Eisch with a phone call last January. His youngest brother, Brian, a soldier and single father, had just received orders to deploy from Fort Drum, N.Y., to Afghanistan and was mulling who might take his two boys for a year. Shawn volunteered.
So began a season of adjustments as the boys came to live in their uncle’s home here. Joey, the 8-year-old, got into fistfights at his new school. His 12-year-old brother, Isaac, rebelled against their uncle’s rules. And Shawn’s three children quietly resented sharing a bedroom, the family computer and, most of all, their parents’ attention with their younger cousins.
The once comfortable Eisch farmhouse suddenly felt crowded.
“It was a lot more traumatic than I ever pictured it, for them,” Shawn, 44, said. “And it was for me, too.”
The work of war is very much a family affair. Nearly 6 in 10 of the troops deployed today are married, and just under half have children. Those families — more than a million of them since 2001 — have borne the brunt of the psychological and emotional strain of deployments.
Siblings and grandparents have become surrogate parents. Spouses have struggled with loneliness and the stress of single parenting. Children have felt confused and abandoned during the long separations. All have felt anxieties about the distant dangers of war.
Christina Narewski, 26, thought her husband’s second deployment might be easier for her than his first. But she awoke one night this summer feeling so anxious about his absence that she thought she was having a heart attack and called an ambulance. And she still jumps when the doorbell rings, fearing it will be officers bearing unwanted news.
“It sucks that you’re afraid to answer your door,” she said.
Social scientists are just beginning to document the rippling effects of multiple combat deployments on families — effects that those families themselves have intimately understood for years. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January found that wives of deployed soldiers sought mental health services more often than other Army wives. They were also more likely to report mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and sleep disorder, the longer the deployments lasted.
And a paper published in the journal Pediatrics in late 2009 found that children in military families were more likely to report anxiety than children in civilian families. The longer a parent had been deployed in the previous three years, the researchers found, the more likely their children were to have had difficulties in school and at home.
But those studies do not describe the myriad ways, often imperceptible to outsiders, in which families cope with deployments every day.
For Ms. Narewski, a mother of three, it has meant taking a grocery store job to distract her from thinking about her husband, a staff sergeant with the First Battalion, 87th Infantry, now in northern Afghanistan.
For Tim Sullivan, it has meant learning how to potty train, braid hair and fix dinner for his two young children while his wife, a sergeant in a support battalion to the 1-87, is deployed.
For young Joey Eisch, it meant crying himself to sleep for days after his father, a platoon sergeant with the battalion, left last spring. His older brother, Isaac, calm on the outside, was nervous on the inside.
“It’s pretty hard worrying if he’ll come back safe,” Isaac said. “I think about it like 10 or more times a day.”
Joining the Army Life
Soon after Christina and Francisco Narewski married in 2004, he applied for a job with the local sheriff’s office in Salinas, Calif. But he got tired of waiting and, after talking things over with Christina, enlisted in the Army instead.
“We both signed up for it,” Ms. Narewski said. “We knew deployments were going to come.”
That day arrived in the fall of 2007, when their third child was just 5 months old. Ms. Narewski missed Francisco dearly and sometimes cried just hearing his voice when he called from Iraq. But when he returned home in October 2008, it took them weeks to feel comfortable together again, she recalled.
“It’s almost like you’ve forgotten how to be with each other,” she said. “He’s been living in his spot for 15 months. Me and the kids have our own routine. It’s hard to get back to, ‘Oh, you’re home.’ ”
Last April, he left again, this time to Afghanistan. Ms. Narewski, who lives in Watertown, N.Y., thought she was prepared. Her mother came to live with them. She signed up for exercise classes to fill the hours. She and Francisco bought BlackBerrys with instant messaging service so they could communicate daily. And yet.
“I’ve never missed him as much as I do right now,” she said recently. “It doesn’t feel like we’re moving. It’s like you’re in a dream and you’re trying to get something and you can’t get it.”
Not all the spouses back home are women. Tim Sullivan’s days have revolved almost entirely around his two children, Austin, 4, and Leah, 2, since his wife, Sgt. Tamara Sullivan, deployed to Afghanistan in March.
He rises each weekday at 5:30 a.m. to dress and feed them before shuttling them to day care. Evenings are the reverse, usually ending with him dozing off in front of the television at their rented ranch-style house in Fayetteville, N.C.
He has moved twice and changed jobs three times in recent years to accommodate his wife’s military career. But he does not mind being home with the children, he says, because his father was not, having left the family when Mr. Sullivan was young.
“I’m not going to put my kids through that,” said Mr. Sullivan, 35, who handles child support cases for the county. “I’m going to be there.”
He worries about lost intimacy with his wife, saying that they have had a number of arguments by phone, usually about bill paying or child rearing. “She tells me: ‘Tim, you can’t just be Daddy, the hard person. You have to be Mommy, too,’” he said. “I tell her it’s not that easy.”
Yet he says that if she stays in the Army — as she has said she wants to do — he is prepared to move again or even endure another deployment. “I love her,” he said. “I’m already signed up. I made a decision to join the life that goes with that.”
Isaac and Joey Eisch have also had to adjust to their father’s nomadic life. “I don’t try to get too attached to my friends because I move around a lot,” said Isaac, who has lived in five states and Germany with his father. (Joey has lived in three states.) “When I leave, it’s like, hard.”
When Sergeant Eisch got divorced in 2004, he took Isaac to an Army post in Germany while Joey stayed with his mother in Wisconsin. Soon after returning to the States in 2007, the sergeant became worried that his ex-wife was neglecting Joey. He petitioned family court for full custody of both boys and won.
In 2009, he transferred to Fort Drum and took the boys with him. Within months, he received orders for Afghanistan.
After nearly 17 years in the Army with no combat deployments, Sergeant Eisch was determined to go to war. The boys, he felt, were old enough to handle his leaving. Little did he know how hard it would be.
When Shawn put the boys in his truck at Fort Drum to take them to Wautoma, a two-stoplight town in central Wisconsin, Isaac clawed at the rear window “like a caged animal,” Sergeant Eisch said. He still tears up at the recollection.
“I question myself every day if I’m doing the right thing for my kids,” he said. “I’m trying to do my duty to my country and deploy, and do what Uncle Sam asks me to do. But what’s everybody asking my boys to do?”
Within a few weeks of arriving at his uncle’s home, Joey beat up a boy so badly that the school summoned the police. It was not the last time Shawn and his wife, Lisa, would be summoned to the principal’s office.
The boys were in pain, Shawn realized. “There was a lot more emotion,” he said, “than Lisa and I ever expected.”
Shawn, a state water conservation officer, decided he needed to set strict rules for homework and good behavior. Violations led to chores, typically stacking wood. But there were carrots, too: for Joey, promises of going to Build-a-Bear if he obeyed his teachers; for Isaac, going hunting with his uncle was the prize. Gradually, the calls from the principal declined, though they have not ended.
In September, Sergeant Eisch returned for midtour leave and the homecoming was as joyful as his departure had been wrenching. Father and sons spent the first nights in hotels, visited an amusement park, went fishing and traveled to New York City, where they saw Times Square and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.
But the two weeks were over in what seemed like hours. In his final days, Sergeant Eisch had prepped the boys for his departure, but that did not make it any easier.
“Why can’t we just, like, end the war?” Isaac asked at one point.
As they waited at the airport, father and sons clung to each other. “I’m going to have to drink like a gallon of water to replenish these tears,” the sergeant said. “Be safe,” Isaac implored him over and over.
Sergeant Eisch said he would, and then was gone.
Despite his worries, Isaac tried to reassure himself. “He’s halfway through, and he’s going to make it,” he said. “With all that training he’s probably not going to get shot. He knows if there’s a red dot on his chest, run. Not toward the enemy. Run, and shoot.”
But his father did not run.
‘Dad’ Comes Home
Just weeks after returning to Afghanistan, Sergeant Eisch, the senior noncommissioned officer for a reconnaissance and sniper platoon, was involved with Afghan police officers in a major offensive into a Taliban stronghold south of Kunduz city.
While directing fire from his armored truck, Sergeant Eisch saw a rocket-propelled grenade explode among a group of police officers standing in a field. The Afghans scattered, leaving behind a man writhing in pain. Sergeant Eisch ordered his medic to move their truck alongside the officer to shield him from gunfire. Then Sergeant Eisch got out.
“I just reacted,” he recalled. “I seen a guy hurt and nobody was helping him, so I went out there.”
The police officer was bleeding from several gaping wounds and seemed to have lost an eye. Sergeant Eisch started applying tourniquets when he heard the snap of bullets and felt “a chainsaw ripping through my legs.” He had been hit by machine gun fire, twice in the left leg, once in the right.
He crawled back into his truck and helped tighten tourniquets on his own legs. He was evacuated by helicopter and taken to a military hospital where, in a morphine daze, he called Shawn.
“Are you sitting down?” Brian asked woozily. “I’ve been shot.”
Shawn hung up and went into a quiet panic. He could not tell how badly Brian had been wounded. Would he lose his leg? He called the school and asked them to shield the boys from the news until he could get there.
Outside school, Shawn told Isaac, Joey and his 12-year-old daughter, Anna, about Brian’s injury. Only Isaac stayed relatively calm.
But later, Shawn found Isaac in his bedroom weeping quietly while looking at a photograph showing his father outside his tent, holding a rifle. Shawn helped him turn the photograph into a PowerPoint presentation titled, “I Love You Dad!”
For Shawn, a gentle and reserved man, his brother’s injury brought six months of family turmoil to a new level. Sensing his distress, Lisa urged him to go hunting, a favorite pastime. So he grabbed his bow and went to a wooded ridge on his 40 acres of property.
To his amazement, an eight-point buck wandered by. Shawn hit the deer, the largest he had ever killed with a bow. It seemed a good omen.
A few days later, Shawn flew with the boys, his father and Brian’s twin sister, Brenda, to Washington to visit the sergeant at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. At the entrance, they saw men in wheelchairs with no arms and no legs. Others were burned or missing eyes. Shawn feared what the boys would see inside Brian’s room.
But Brian, giddy from painkillers, was his cheerful self. His right leg seemed almost normal. His left leg, swollen and stapled together, looked terrible. But it was a real leg, and it was still attached to him. The boys felt relieved.
Within days, Brian was wheeling himself around the hospital and cracking jokes with nurses, a green-and-yellow Green Bay Packers cap on his head. While Joey lost himself in coloring books and television, Isaac attended to his father’s every need.
“I feel a little more grown up,” Isaac said. “I feel a lot more attached to him than I was when he left.”
One doctor told Brian that he would never be able to carry a rucksack or run again because of nerve damage in his left leg. Someone even asked him if he wanted the leg amputated, since he would certainly be able to run with a prosthetic. Brian refused, and vowed to prove the doctor wrong. By December, he was walking with a cane and driving again.
For Shawn, too, the future had become murkier. It might be many weeks before Brian could reclaim his sons. But he also knew how glad the boys were to have their father back in one piece.
“Brian came home,” Shawn said one evening after visiting his brother in the hospital. “He didn’t come home like we hoped he would come home, but he came home.”
“Every single day I think about all those families and all those kids that are not going to have a dad come home from Afghanistan,” he said. “That hurts more than watching my brother try to take a step because I know my brother will take a step and I know he’s going to walk down the dock and get in his bass boat someday.”
It was late, and he had to get the boys up the next morning to visit their father at the hospital again. The holidays were fast approaching and the snow would soon be arriving in Wisconsin. Shawn wondered whether he could get Isaac out hunting before the season ended.
Yeah, he thought. He probably could.