Military spouses question, then embrace support group

Monday, May 10, 2004

PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- While members of Company B of the National Guard's 1140th Engineer Battalion are serving in Iraq, their spouses are actively involved in what they call the "sanity division" -- the family support group.

The state mandates that every company have a family support group, a concept that some spouses at first questioned, later embraced. This group meets the first Saturday of every month, alternating between Perryville and Jackson. Members come from as far away as St. Charles, Mo.

Before their husbands were shipped off Jan. 3 for an 18-month tour, Diane Kohm and Nicole Ritch of Perryville and Terri Dietiker of Biehle, Mo., probably wouldn't have known each other. They're involved in raising their children, jobs and keeping up with the day-to-day activities that keep most families busy. Now that their husbands, Paul, Jeremy and Justin, are away, they have found that they need each other.

"When this first started I thought, 'This is ridiculous,'" Ritch said. "I thought, 'How can they support me? They're going through the same thing I am.' I found since I have been going to the meetings that I just need them. There's just that common bond."

Most of the support group's members, numbering around 60, have family and friends nearby to call on, but not even family can always grasp what a military spouse lives with.

"It's one thing to have family, but if you have a military family, they really understand, they're the only ones who can relate to you," Kohm said.

Information, not pity

Support group meetings are not "pity parties." Mostly what the women, and the occasional male member, do is exchange information. If one hasn't heard from a spouse in a while, it's possible that another has and can pass on the knowledge that her husband is on a mission and is all right.

When the "venting sessions" might come, Dietiker said, is when the men come home to find that things aren't like they used to be. Their wives have out of necessity displaced them as head of the household.

"When my husband comes home he's going to expect things to be the way they were when he left," Dietiker said. She is concerned that her youngest won't remember her father.

"She had not said 'dada' before he left," she said. "I talk to her about him and show her his picture, but I think to her right now that picture is 'dada.' It's going to be an adjustment."

While they have helped each other deal with issues only military spouses can anticipate, they're more concerned about how their husbands are dealing with it.

"We have kids to kiss goodnight and tuck in bed," Dietiker said. "They just have pictures."

They send packages to their husbands with things to remind them of home. They write letters, send e-mails. They do their best to make sure that their soldiers know that they're appreciated. Ritch said she especially enjoys telling her husband how much the public appreciates the sacrifice he is making. Dietiker said she wonders about the men in Iraq who, unlike soldiers in the Vietnam War, have no social outlets in their down time.

"Those guys are confined, and they're wondering 'What is my wife doing?' I can see how that would wear on them," she said. "That's why we write them, e-mail them, send them packages and let them know 'I am here, I support you, I love you every step of the way.'"

Each of the women proudly displays yellow ribbon decals and magnets on their vehicles with their husband's name on them. People who drive past often honk, wave and salute to show their support.

Important to stay busy

They have the occasional tearful moment, but they have learned that keeping busy makes the time fly and keeps their children grounded. One of the few male members of the group passes the time by building his soldier wife a house he hopes to have finished by the time she returns.

When Company B left, the women took over the stretch of highway the company adopted and spent an hour recently picking up trash, laying down a foundation for friendship. Kohm said that some retired soldiers showed their support of the women's effort by cooking hot dogs for them afterward.

People in their communities have been generous and considerate, but the spouses find it difficult to ask for help from anyone but other support group members. They know they would help anyone in need in a heartbeat; it's just hard to be on the receiving end.

Dietiker said her 13-year-old nephew mowed her yard for her while she was away one afternoon. A friend of Ritch's husband is going to repair the roof on their home; the support group members in return will cook for the workers that day.

"This whole experience has taught me how useless money is as far as the memories my husband is missing out on," Ritch said.

"I've gotten this more than anything: 'Don't tell me no. I am going to do this and not miss out on a blessing,'" Dietiker said.

When people ask what they can do, the women ask for prayers. It's the easiest thing they have found to ask for. Kohm said that even though the family income in most cases isn't as good as it was when their husbands were home working, the Army still pays enough for the families to carry on.

Kohm said she has received anonymous cards and letters with money in them. A handshake from a church member left a check in her hand. They value the spirit in which the gifts are made as much as the gifts. Often the gifts go into savings; when they do use the money, it's for something for their children or something special to send to their husbands.

Indirectly helps husbands

At the same time they realize that these gifts from the community are also benefiting their husbands. When the women tell them about all the kindness they have received, Kohm said, they know their families at home are being taken care of.

"It's one thing they don't have to worry about," she said.

The women say their faith, though strong before, is stronger now. Ritch said she sees the support group as a way she can reach out and minister to other wives who have trouble coping.

"Without knowing Christ and using what you have there, it is easy to dwell on the 'pity me,'" Ritch said.

The group has also been buoyed by the monthly "Pray Them Home" services at Mount Auburn Christian Church.

"We don't want pity," Kohm said, "but it's nice to know we're supported. It's nice to get a hug and have someone say, 'It's going to be all right.'"

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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