To most of us, war is something we see on TV or scan in the daily paper or flip past in a news magazine. It's something we don't have to fret about much, unless we're studying for a current-events quiz or trying to decide how to vote.
To some people, though, war is a much more intimate reality: It's the last thing they think about at night, the first thought that crosses their minds in the morning, and the uneasy feeling that creeps into their dreams. They have a loved one serving as a soldier -- a cherished spouse or son or daughter living in a danger zone half a world away.
We asked four local families to share with us stories of their beloved soldiers. The soldiers we heard about range in age from a 39-year-old sergeant serving in Afghanistan to a 20-year-old former cheerleader ducking mortar rounds in Iraq. Some serve in the National Guard, some in the reserves. Some believe in the righteousness of their cause; some just want to survive and come back home.
Despite these differences, their families have a lot in common.
For one thing, they don't know when their loved ones will return -- on the date promised (which the families all preface with the word "supposedly") or sometime months later.
"I still think she'll get an extension just like everybody else does," says Ellie Lee, whose daughter is in the midst of a 13-month Army National Guard tour in Iraq. "Haven't you noticed? A lot of people got extensions of three months more."
For another, their soldiers are pulling dangerous duty. All the families we interviewed with soldiers in Iraq say their loved ones are "running convoys," a job vulnerable to the insurgents' weapon of choice, the "improvised explosive device."
None of these families believes the situation in Iraq will be resolved anytime soon.
"I think we're going to be there for years. Years," says Leslie Dickson, who has a son and daughter in the service.
Meanwhile, these families share a bond the rest of us can't possibly fathom. In the words of expectant mother Jessica Stock, whose 20-year-old husband, Jeremy, is in Iraq, the anguish of having someone you love serving in a war is plainly incomprehensible, unless it's happening to you.
"I don't want people to feel bad for me, and I don't want people to try to understand it, because you don't," she says. "I mean, I didn't understand, before this. I didn't care who was over there or what was going on. And now I do. I care about all of them, not just Jeremy. I'm scared for all of them."
CPL. MATTHEW DICKSON, 23
U. S. Marine Corps Reserve
Charlie Company, 6th Engineering Support Battalion, Peoria
Now on a seven-month tour in Al Anbar province, Iraq; due home March 2005
If talismans and trinkets hold any power, Matthew Dickson's safe return is guaranteed. His mother, Leslie Dickson, wears a tiny picture of him on a chain around her neck. She has festooned the family's Lake Springfield home with yellow ribbons, an American flag, a U.S. Marine Corps flag, and the special banner given to families with relatives in the military.
The Dicksons' banner has two big blue stars -- one for Matt and one for his sister, Michelle, who will graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in May. Leslie wears two simple bracelets reminiscent of the Vietnam-era POW/MIA bangles -- one with Matt's name, one with Michelle's. A pair of candles in the window symbolizes Matt and his fellow soldier Lee Curby, who is also Michelle's longtime boyfriend.
"I have a lot of little charms, do a lot of praying, have a lot of faith," Leslie says. "I don't watch a lot of news, I don't read a lot . . . I just kind of look at things and get a little sickish, and then I just kind of think about something else and just count the weeks down.
"I'm looking forward to March," she says. "Supposedly they're going to be back in March."
The Dicksons are a military family. Both of Matt's grandfathers served in World War II, and his parents, Leslie and Mike, met while serving in the Navy. Although they didn't make the Navy their careers (Leslie teaches nursing and Mike is a school principal), the family exudes the traditional trim, spit-and-polish sensibility associated with the military.
So it seemed almost routine to the Dickson clan when Matt signed up for the Naval ROTC program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They were a little surprised when he announced that a Marine gunnery sergeant in the ROTC program had inspired him to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve.
"I think he wanted to challenge himself, go through boot camp, prove something to himself," Leslie says. "He wanted to be a Marine. And then 9/11 happened."
Michelle, 21, also joined before 9/11, going through "plebe summer" in 2001, at the same time Matt was in boot camp. But Mike and Leslie say they wouldn't have interfered with their children's decisions even if they had decided to enlist after 9/11.
"It's totally their choice," Leslie says.
Matt spent four months in Kuwait and Iraq in 2003, in the earliest days of this conflict, and he witnessed the deaths of two fellow soldiers -- Cpl. Evan James, from La Harpe, and Sgt. Bradley Korthaus, originally from Iowa [see Pete Sherman, "Remembering Evan James," Sept. 11, 2003]. They drowned while setting up a water-filtration system in the Saddam Canal, in southeastern Iraq.
At the memorial service, Matt held the Marine flag. A Detroit Free Press artist, embedded with Charlie Company, drew a poignant illustration of Matt, head bowed, flanked by two helmets poised on rifles stuck in the sand.
"As a parent, you feel so at a loss because you can't be there to assist them in dealing with that grief," Mike says. "That was the first time for him to have to deal with the loss of another person without support from his family."
Yet despite this trauma, Matt again didn't consult his parents before volunteering for a second deployment this year.
"He said, 'That's my duty,' " Mike recalls. "His explanation was that some of his other Marines have families and young kids, and he said, 'Better for me to go, when I don't have that to deal with, than to have them go.' But now they all ended up going anyway."
Michelle similarly stunned her parents by requesting to serve her five-year postacademy obligation with the Marines instead of the Navy, thereby almost guaranteeing that she, too, will go to Iraq.
"I'd feel better if she was stateside, but they didn't ask for my input in any of this," Leslie says.
The Dicksons find themselves in the predicament that plagues many parents who have worked hard to raise their kids to be independent, only to find they have succeeded. Matt not only didn't ask for their advice, he now doesn't give them many details about his wartime experience.
Since he landed in Iraq on Aug. 14, the Dicksons have heard from their son only a half-dozen times, counting e-mails and telephone calls. They believe his duty consists mainly of driving Humvees and semi-trucks, transporting equipment, fuel, people, and products, but they realize that he may not be sharing the whole truth.
"He and Lee are kind of coy and hedging, I think, on questions like 'Are you safe?' They say that they are safe 'for now.' But I don't know," Leslie says. "I know they do have mortar fire onto the base."
What news they do get often comes from Michelle, who hears from Lee, or from Matt's girlfriend in Champaign. Through the girls, they learned that both Matt and Lee recently earned promotions to the rank of corporal and that Matt has been taking antibiotics to fight inflammation in his arm.
Leslie's father, Kenneth Paul, chuckles. "I used to write your mother more than I did my mother," he says.
Paul, whom the kids call Pop, seems to have mixed feelings about his grandchildren's service in the war. "I wish Matt was home right now," he says, "but he's not the only kid. Both his grandfathers had their lives interrupted. And now it's his generation's turn, I guess. I don't know."
SPC. JENNIFER BUFFINGTON, 20
Illinois Army National Guard
1544th Transportation Company, Paris
Now on a 13-month tour near Falluja, Iraq; due home March 2005
Ellie Lee knew all about being in the National Guard. It meant putting out forest fires, helping hurricane victims, maybe quelling a riot or stacking sandbags to stem floodwaters. After all, that's what Lee herself did during her eight years in the Guard.
So when her daughter, Jennifer Buffington, asked her to sign forms allowing her to enlist early, at age 17, Lee didn't hesitate.
"She knew I couldn't put her through college," Lee says, "so she thought, 'OK, I'll go one weekend a month, two weeks a summer, and if something comes up, I can help' -- because that's the way Jennifer is. She's a very caring person. She gives her heart out to everybody."
It's not hard to picture Lee in the Guard. A self-described "tomboy," she wears no makeup, keeps her nails short, and doesn't mince words. Her world revolves around work and her two kids -- Scott, 24, and Jennifer, now 20 -- whom she has reared with her own homespun wisdom.
"I've always told my kids that no matter what, as long as we have love, you can succeed at anything in life," Lee says.
That's what she told Jennifer when she didn't make the cheerleading squad her freshman year at Lincoln High School. Jennifer thought that only girls with certain family names and a certain household income got to be cheerleaders. But Lee told her not to give up.
"I said, 'Jennifer, no you don't. Be yourself, and you'll be somebody,' " Lee recalls. Jennifer went on to become a cheerleader, president of the student council, pompom-squad dancer, and a Miss Illinois top-15 finalist two years in a row. For a very brief time after she enrolled in college, she even tried waitressing at Hooters.
"That didn't work out," Lee says. "It was very uncomfortable for her."
But just the fact that she tried it says something about Jennifer's spirit. Whatever the job, she'll give it her best shot. And that was her attitude heading into Iraq. From the moment she got what Lee describes as "the call" in February 2003, Jennifer was gung-ho and ready to go.
Lee, on the other hand, had a meltdown. "I was a mess. I cried probably a good half-hour straight," she says.
Weeks later, after Jennifer withdrew from school and was guest of honor at a going-away party, her unit was demobilized. She re-enrolled in school and found a new job and was settling back into her routine when, suddenly, "the call" came again.
This time, Lee didn't let herself get carried away. She felt certain that Jennifer's unit would be demobilized again. "I never envisioned going to war," she says.
But next thing she knew, her daughter was in Iraq.
"It's hard to deal with, but you sit there and, I don't know, I clip newspaper articles and I try not to watch TV," Lee says.
Now there's only so much she can do now to help Jennifer. Lee has her banner with the single star hung in her window. She displays magnetic ribbons on her truck. She sends care packages of microwave meals, vanilla Pop-Tarts, chocolate Ho Ho's, and Gatorade mix to disguise the "stinky" taste of the water. And every day, when she goes to work, she wears a button with Jennifer's picture on it.
"My main button I love says, 'My daughter, my friend, my soldier, my hero.' I would love to wear that," Lee says. "But at work I can only wear one, so I wear her picture. Otherwise I'd be wearing pins all the time."
Despite these efforts, Lee finds herself feeling helpless on the rare occasions when she gets an actual call from Jennifer. The telephone usually rings around 5 in the morning, and for about a half-hour, all Lee can do is listen to her daughter cry.
The 1544th has suffered more casualties than any other Illinois unit -- one in March, one in May, two in September. Then, just two weeks ago, a close friend of Jennifer's, 21-year-old Jessica Cawvey, was killed by a roadside bomb. Two other soldiers were seriously injured in the same explosion. Their names have not been released, but Lee knows one of them is especially close to her daughter.
"When she called me, she was crying so hard, she was hyperventilating," Lee says.
In an Oct. 8 e-mail punctuated with sad-faced emoticons, Jennifer described waking up with her face swollen and head throbbing from the physical strain of sobbing.
"We are gonna be having another memorial ceremony here in a few days and once again I will salute my farewell to a rifle that is supposed to symbolize one of the most important people in my life," Jennifer wrote. "It shouldn't be like this mom. We shouldn't have to feel like this and [Cawvey's] daughter should have her mommy. I walk by her room every time I go to mine and EVERY TIME I look in there. I don't know why. Maybe I'm just hoping she'll be there, but she never is. I miss her and it hurts so bad. And it sucks that it hurts this bad for me, because she was one of my best friends . . . and it is going to hurt so much more to the little girl, Sierra Cawvey, who just lost her EVERYTHING!"
Lee worries because Jennifer has had close calls herself. She has told her mom about having to dive behind sandbags during a mortar attack, and about coming under small-arms fire while driving a truck.
"They're seeing things we will never, ever believe," Lee says. "It's stuff you only see in a war movie or something. It's just unbelievable. She should be studying history, not making history."
SGT. FIRST CLASS CHUCK KEAN, 39
United States Army Reserve
221st Ordnance Company
Now stationed in Bagram, Afghanistan Tour extended one year; due home in April 2005
Chuck Kean received a shipment of cookies from a California Girl Scout troop that had adopted his platoon. The note they sent with the cookies showed the scouts' utter lack of understanding of the conflict in Afghanistan: "Thank you for protecting the lions and the tigers and the bears," it said.
Kean's wife, Zoé Dartez-Kean, laughs a little when she tells this story, but she does get frustrated with all the attention focused on Iraq.
"It's very troublesome. Every day when I open the paper, there will be something on the front page about Iraq. Then, if you open it up, in those little boxes in the left-hand corner of the second page, there's usually a little story on Afghanistan," she says.
She and her husband call it the "forgotten war."
Chuck, who was on active duty for 13 years, spent several months in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, and he told Zoé that if he had to go somewhere, he preferred Afghanistan.
"It's a more mature environment. It's been there longer, they have more facilities, they've got operations in place that make it safer for them," she says. "For instance, there was this guy that was there before him, and Chuck got the guy's leftover microwave. That kind of thing."
All he's asked for in his care packages are his magazines (Time, Newsweek, Soldier, VFW, Ranger Joe), white bread, peanut butter, and Clorox wipes. Now that another family has provided a bread machine, Zoé doesn't have to send bread.
Chuck calls every Saturday and talks for as long as he wants to Zoé and their kids -- 12-year-old Ashtyn and 10-year-old Taylor. Three or four times a week, Zoé gets e-mail from him. Lately he's been telling her about the Friday night steak-and-seafood specials available in the chow hall and the newest restaurants on the base (Burger King, Subway, Dairy Queen, Orange Julius, a pizza place, and Chinese and Thai restaurants; rumor has it that a Korean restaurant will open soon).
But just because there's lobster, ribeye, and pad thai doesn't mean it's not a real war.
"We got woke up at 5 this morning by the big PA system and told we had to wear our helmets and body armor if we went outside of any building for any reason. Nothing like brushing your teeth with all that crap on," Chuck wrote in an e-mail dated Oct. 4. "They let us get out of it at around noon, but I'm sure we will be back in it by sunset."
This order was issued in anticipation of unrest during the recent presidential elections, and Chuck complained to Zoé about soldiers who couldn't keep their armor handy.
"Believe it or not, I have dumbasses coming up to me saying that they are having problems keeping track of their go-to-war crap. They think it is overkill to have to have body armor and helmets near them while they are in a war zone," he wrote.
Chuck's job is overseeing 10 to 15 acres of ordnance on a base constructed on top of an old minefield. "That can get a little hairy," Zoé says. "They get a lot of incoming rounds -- like artillery, like mortars. Most of the time they're not hitting a whole lot, from what he's telling me, but he doesn't tell me everything."
He has told her that the worst part is being on guard duty and seeing the wounded arrive. "People come up with parts blown off," Zoé says.
Her tone is unwaveringly calm. A pharmaceutical-sales rep, Zoé says she gave up worrying about Chuck years ago. When he's not deployed overseas, he's a Springfield Police Department patrol officer working the midnight shift on the East Side. If Zoé let herself fret, she might go crazy.
"I don't really worry that much. I probably should," she says, "but I have confidence in him and his leadership skills, and I know Chuck would never do anything to put himself or anybody else in danger."
Besides, she has enough on her mind just taking care of their kids and their home. "I'm OK with not knowing everything," she says. "I have too much to worry about at this point in time. I have to limit the amount of stress I bring on myself. I want to know if the stock market's going to crash or if I'm going to make any money this year or if my kids are safe. That's the kind of things I want to know. I like being in the dark."
SPC. JEREMY STOCK, 20
Illinois Army National Guard
3625th Maintenance Company
Now on an 18-month tour, stationed at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq; due home July 2005
When people ask Jessica Stock how she could marry a soldier stationed in Iraq, she thinks they have the question backward. It's not how could she, it's how could she not?
"If something were to happen to him, at least I would know that we were married. That's all I can say. There's nothing I can do if something happens to him," she says.
Jessica is 19; Jeremy is 20. They've known each other since the eighth grade but dated only for five months during their senior year at Beardstown High School. They broke up for reasons Jessica can't recall. Then she went off to college, and Jeremy went to military training.
When she came home for Christmas, Jeremy appeared at her house, and they went for a drive. He told her he was going to be sent to Iraq, and she just shrugged and said, "OK." She simply didn't believe him.
A month later, he called her from Wisconsin, where his unit was preparing to be shipped out. He asked her to come visit him before he left. She responded with a three-page letter telling him how much she loved him. She arrived in Wisconsin on Valentine's Day, and they got engaged.
But that's not all. As it turns out, Jessica also got pregnant.
"It was just out of the blue," she says. "I was not expecting any of this. Him just leaving made me realize I don't want to be without him."
They married on July 27, five days into his two-week leave. Those two weeks are the only time they've actually lived together, but Jessica says she can't get used to not having him home.
"Sometimes I just hate being here because this is his home, too, and he's not here," she says, sitting in their Koke Mill apartment. "I was just getting used to being by myself, and then he comes home for two weeks. And then I get used to waking up next to him, and then he's gone.
"It was the hardest thing in the world for me to get back into my routine after he left. I'm just now doing that," she says.
They stay in touch through instant messaging on the computer. Jeremy wants to know everything going on at home but tells Jessica little about what he's doing in Iraq. She knows he drives convoys and does guard duty at the base, and that's scary enough for her.
"He says he won't talk to me about it till he gets home -- and that's probably good, because I probably wouldn't ever want to get out of bed. I would just be thinking about what's going on over there," she says. "I don't think he tells me the truth of what he's doing anyway. The less I know, the better, I guess. You just fall asleep praying, and you wake up praying."
He does send her pictures and little digital movies starring a group of servicemen Jessica has come to know well by sight, though not by name. She can pop in a disc and let her computer run a slide show of these clowns dancing, sleeping, mugging for the camera, drinking Captain Morgan and Jack Daniel's, wearing nothing but boots and boxers.
In bite-size documentaries, Jeremy captures his buddies jumping out of their trucks, practicing the "ranger roll," bluff-bartering with Iraqi peasants for donkeys and bicycles, driving down the wrong side of the highway, and generally behaving like a bunch of frat boys, albeit frat boys with guns.
"They're his life right now. It's so amazing. They are smartasses and perverts -- they're guys!" Jessica says.
"You know, they're going to be his friends for life. They all experienced this together. There's gonna be things that I have no clue about, but he shared something with them, you know? He probably feels a lot closer to them than he does to me."
In her sweet little-girl voice, Jessica says this with no bitterness, as if she's almost relieved that her husband has someone to pal around with. She answers with the same unconditional affection when asked whether Jeremy will be the same boy she married by the time he comes home.
"No. He's not. Already there's a big difference, just in the way he's more aggressive," she says. "Like just from being over there, his language is really different. He cusses a lot, like, a lot! When he was home, he did it all the time."
Jessica has an almost childlike way of viewing the world through practical reality rather than political abstraction. It doesn't make sense to her that soldiers are granted emergency leave to come home for funerals but don't get leave to come home for the birth of a child. It doesn't seem fair to her that Jeremy got "attached" to the 3625th and that because his regular unit, the 3637th, hasn't been deployed, he could get home and have to turn around and go right back over to Iraq. In fact, to Jessica, the whole war seems illogical.
"Who are we to go in and tell another country how to live their lives? Everyone's, like, 'Oh, we've got to get Osama bin Laden.' What does he have to do with Iraq? I don't know," Jessica says.
Asked whether Jeremy shares her views, she says she has no clue how he feels.
"Jeremy's big thing is, he just wants to come home. That's all he wants to do, is come home," she says. "I just don't see where this is ever gonna end. I mean, when is it going to stop? It's never gonna stop. We're always going to have people over there, and when Jeremy does come home, somebody else is getting sent over. So this is never going to be over for me and him, because I'm always going to feel bad for them."
Volunteers of America
More than 173,000 soldiers with the National Guard and Reserve units have been called to active duty because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of that total, Guard and Reserve units in Illinois have contributed nearly 4,800 men and women, according to the Pentagon.
The conflicts have been declared a "national emergency," triggering a clause in each volunteer soldier's contract that allows the government to "extend" their duty.
Since President Bush ordered the attack on Iraq in March 2003, more than 1,100 U.S. soldiers have died in the conflict.
Of that number, 48 are from Illinois. One in four Illinois soldiers who died were with the Guard or Reserve.
Of the 10 Army National Guard soldiers who have died, five served with the Paris, Ill.-based 1544th Transportation Company.