Women of War

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Meet three women whose lives have been changed forever by the war in Iraq.

It’s more than a hot-button issue. It’s more than a controversy with the power to tip an election. Wars hit home. They hit hard. We talk with three women for whom the war in Iraq is deeply personal: a soldier, now a new mother, who fought in the war—and whose husband remains overseas; a wife and mother of three whose husband was stationed in Iraq for more than a year; and the mother of a 22-year-old son who just left Iraq and is waiting in Alaska to see if he’ll be ordered back. How did the war change them? How did it change their families? What’s it like to say goodbye, to be apart, then to have someone come home from one of the bloodiest places on the planet? If you have no idea—and let’s face it, many of us don’t—read what these women have to say.

Michelle McFetridge

The hardest thing about trying to raise her three children while her husband was away at war, says Michelle McFetridge, was resisting the temptation to indulge them. “It was difficult not to. You want to give them what they want because you feel bad for them,” she says. “But there is a reluctance in our society to suffer, when suffering can actually make you a better person.” McFetridge insists that the war, which took her husband away from family life for 15 months—time the McFetridges will never get back—made them a better family.

Jim McFetridge joined the National Guard Reserve after 9/11. He had served in the Navy, then attended law school in San Francisco, where he met his future wife. “We met on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation,” McFetridge, a devout Catholic, recalls, adding that she had been thinking about joining a convent or signing up with the Peace Corps at that very time in her life. “So my meeting Jim was definitely God-planned,” she says.  They moved to East Sacramento in 1994, and had three children: Isabelle, Mitchell and Matthew.

After her husband was called to active duty in March of 2005, McFetridge found out Jim would be leaving in May, first for training in Colorado and then to Iraq, to work as a command judge advocate in the 115th Area Support Group.

On May 21, the family made the somber drive to the armory in Roseville. Jim didn’t actually get on the bus until noon, McFetridge remembers, so the family had plenty of time to say their goodbyes—a good and bad thing. Seeing her husband being driven away was “like having half my heart gone,” McFetridge says.

At first, her husband was stationed in Kuwait, then eventually Iraq, where he was part of a joint committee dealing with policy for detainees who were suspected of insurgent activity. It was his responsibility to summarize detainee cases for review—relatively safe work, McFetridge admits. But when her husband was moved into and around Iraq, she knew he could be in danger. “Any time you move in that country, you’re in danger of being shot at,” she explains.

 

Jim e-mailed his wife daily; when the e-mails didn’t come, for whatever reason, McFetridge worried. “But there’s nothing you can do,” she points out. She prayed daily and asked others to pray for her and her husband. “You just have to believe that your husband will be safe and return. My faith got me through this.”

Stateside, McFetridge found herself having to deal with being a single mom to a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old for the first time in her life. During the summer months, without school to worry about, not having a partner meant doing handy work she’d never even attempted: handling flooding bathrooms, an overgrown yard, a broken air-conditioning system. “But it was 120 degrees in Iraq; what could we possibly say?” laughs McFetridge. The lawn died, the backyard looked “as if the war had been fought there,” she recalls, but it wasn’t until school started—and then the holidays—that the war took its emotional toll on the family. “Christmastime, we melted down,” McFetridge says. “I was trying to do everything to make it a happy time: work the video camera, put together this erector set for Matthew—all the things Jim always did.” Doing those things, she was overcome with grief. “Christmas morning, we were all crying,” McFetridge says.

When she talked with others about her husband, she was surprised how quick some acquaintances were to share their views on the war. “People would sometimes just rant about whether or not they agreed with the war. My response would always be, well, you have the right to your opinion. But this was very personal to us. My husband was over there. It wasn’t a political issue for me; it was very personal.” McFetridge admits that she wasn’t thrilled when her husband volunteered to serve in the first place, “but it was something he felt he needed to do, and I couldn’t not let him do something he believed he needed to do. I’m his wife. More than anyone else, I should support him; his family should support him.”

In the time he was away, Jim missed a first communion, a first confession, a confirmation, birthdays and holidays. That, says McFetridge, was hard on the family “because we are so devout, these things are a very big deal to us.” But the flip side of this, she insists, was that her husband’s absence brought out the best in everyone. Along with family members who stepped in to assist the McFetridges, Isabelle helped with the cooking and the laundry, Matthew and Mitchell took out the garbage and made their own lunches. ‘They grew up,” McFetridge summarizes, adding that she enjoyed the chance to get to know her kids better. “I got them all to myself,” she explains. “It was nice.” And she discovered a lot about her role in the household, how much she was capable of, how tough she could be if something unexpected were to happen to her husband.

And, McFetridge adds, because Jim was away, when it came to dealing with family issues that required his input—such as when they started having trouble with the children’s schooling—Dad didn’t get caught up in the emotional entanglements of the situation. Via e-mails, his solution—perhaps influenced somewhat by months of military life—was swift and certain. “‘Change schools,’ he told me,” recalls McFetridge. “I was struggling with wanting to do this; he told me, ‘just do it.’ So we did, and the children are much happier.”

The physical separation was surprisingly beneficial to their marriage, McFetridge explains. “It was like we were courting again,” she says, pulling out the e-mails her husband sent home to her. “He would tell me how much I meant to him, how much he loved me, and when things weren’t going so smoothly, I would reread those e-mails and be reminded of him and how much he cared.”

 

Jim recently was named a Superior Court judge by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because he worked for the state as a defense attorney before he was called to duty, the state made up for the pay he missed while stationed in Iraq. “This was huge,” says McFetridge, “because I know families where this did not happen, and they are struggling financially as well as emotionally and psychologically.”

Now that her husband has returned, there is the matter of adjustment, says McFetridge. “He’s trying to find his spot again, of course. There are control issues.” For a time, her husband did too much micromanaging in the kitchen, for example. “Finally, I would say to him, ‘Out! Or cook,’” she laughs. Her husband is assuming his place again as head of the family—and dealing still with the awkwardness of an emotional homecoming. “Everyone missed Jim,” says McFetridge. “It was hard, but I will always remember the year he was away. It was a very important year for our family.”

Pearl VanInWagen

When Pearl VanInwagen, 22, graduated from Folsom High School in 2002, she made a list of pros and cons to help her decide whether or not to join the U.S. Army. “One of my cons was that I’d be in the military,” she laughs. VanInwagen, who describes herself as a Clinton supporter, recalls that she was the type of high school student who didn’t exactly flourish academically. “I liked yearbook,” she says, and adds that she definitely had a problem with authority.

When asked to request her assignments with the Army, VanInwagen listed Germany, Hawaii and Italy overseas and, stateside, California, Alaska and Arizona—in that order. She was sent to Fort Drum in New York—a rapid-deployment camp indicating she was headed to Iraq. It was there VanInwagen met her future husband. Robert grew up just miles from Fort Drum, in Black River. “I didn’t like him at first,” VanInwagen admits, but the two were sent to Iraq together, and a romance blossomed—a romance discouraged by the military. “You’re not allowed to date outside your ranks,” she says, but the two got together anyway, serving in the same company but on different platoons. She married Robert on July 31, 2005—just about a year after she began her tour in Iraq. By December, she discovered she was pregnant.

 

“I was given three choices,” she recalls. VanInwagen had the option of remaining in the military but she would be deployed to a different company—and separated from her husband. Or she could return to her platoon after the baby was born and continue her training for a post in the military police, but the baby would have to remain at home with her dad in the United States. Or she could leave the military altogether, which is what she did. “I wanted to stay in; I needed the benefits and I liked it,” VanInwagen explains. “But I wanted to be with my daughter and my husband, and that wasn’t an option.”

VanInwagen and her daughter are living temporarily with her father in Folsom, preparing to move to the site in Texas where her husband will be stationed after he finishes his third tour in Iraq, just in time for Christmas. She hopes.

“There are no guarantees. The military can do whatever it wants,” she says.

 

Her daughter, Zoe, is 3 ½ weeks old. Robert has only seen pictures of her. “He’s never met her. He’s never even seen me pregnant,” VanInwagen says. She has all kinds of trouble with the insurance the military provides, which runs out for her daughter at the end of the year. For example, VanInwagen recalls, when she was in labor, insurance representatives insisted that in order for her to get full coverage for the birth—including having access to procedures such as an emergency Caesarean section—she would have to have her baby at a hospital near a military facility: one in Yuba City, or another in Vacaville.

VanInwagen remembers her time in Iraq favorably. She explains that it consisted of long periods of not much going on with short sudden spurts of battle: “We’d be driving somewhere and our truck would be fired on. We’d just turn up the radio,” she shrugs. They couldn’t return fire, or engage the enemy, she explains, because of the presence of civilians. “There was no way we could determine who was the enemy and who wasn’t, or where the gunfire was coming from.” 

While guarding one bridge, VanInwagen had been standing in a spot for about an hour when she left it—something she wasn’t supposed to do, she adds—“to get a drink of water, I think.” Moments later, the spot was hit with mortar fire. “Talking to some of the guys, I found out later that you always move around. You never stand in one place for too long; you can get bombed that way,” she explains.
She recalls this incident matter-of-factly. When asked if she worries about her husband’s safety—he is still serving in Iraq, in a high-risk role as part of the military police patrol—she shrugs and says she refuses to think about that. She shrugs a lot.

Women, it turns out, have key roles to play in this war: Because she was female, it was often VanInwagen’s responsibility to search the women accompanying the men who were crossing bridges, etc. She says she didn’t really think about the fact that those she was searching might be suicide bombers, with explosive devices strapped to their torsos. VanInwagen was one of two women in a platoon of 60, speculating that there were about 15 women total in a company of 120. “I wasn’t really treated any differently,” she insists, with the exception of one general, who, while preparing her discharge, made a comment about how women belonged back home in the kitchen.

“It’s not like you see on TV,” VanInwagen comments, her own television set to a military channel, her daughter sleeping in a swing chair in the corner of her father’s living room. “It’s not all violent and bloody. The Iraqis are actually pretty bad shots; they’d fire off all these mortar shells but hardly ever hit anything. We made fun of them.”

 

When they had downtime, VanInwagen and her platoon would watch the Iraqi children play soccer. “They would play with deflated balls. It was sad because they were so good! They’d kick any American kids’ soccer team’s butt, that’s for sure.”

She spends her time caring for her daughter, preparing to move, scrolling online pictures of her camp in Iraq and pictures of her husband and his fellow soldiers, and watching the military channels on cable television, it seems, wishing she were there.

Laurie Loving

Laurie Loving’s 22-year-old son left for Iraq on Aug. 16, 2005. The past year and a half, says Loving, has been one long, sustained period of fear. “I have been anxious and terrified since the day he left,” she says.

The Davis native refuses to disclose her son’s name—only that he is an Army sergeant in the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is currently serving in Iraq. At this moment, however, her son is stationed in Alaska, waiting to hear from his superiors where he’s headed next. Loving describes how in July, he, with the men who served under him in Iraq, were headed to Alaska, when, at the 13th hour, they were called back to Iraq. “They ran out of seats on the plane [to Iraq],” Loving explains. “Ten seats, 30 men. They drew names out of a hat, and my son’s name was not selected.”

Loving waited all weekend to hear whether her son would or would not be going back to Baghdad. When her son finally called with the news—that he would remain in Alaska, for now—Loving demanded to know why he hadn’t called her right away. “He told me he had gone hunting. I got angry with him, said, ‘I can’t talk to you right now,’ and hung up the phone and collapsed on the floor.”

 

“They train them to be this way,” says Loving. “They train them not to react, not to think about the danger they face.”

Loving describes herself as one of those liberal parents who banned guns, encouraged self-expression, “tries to allow children to figure things out, who give them freedom to explore and make decisions for themselves.” As a high school student, her son rebelled against authority and was more interested in drumming for a band than anything else. After high school, he expressed interest in opening a silk-screen T-shirt-making shop, much like one he had worked in as a teenager. “He asked us for $10,000, and we requested that he take some business courses first,” Loving recalls. But the army recruiter offered $5,000 off the bat, a  salaried job, travel, money for education—plus all kinds of suggestions as to how her son could pursue his dreams. And, when her son called with the news that he had enlisted, Loving realized all along he had craved rules, craved discipline, craved this structure and purpose. “I never in a million years thought I would be a military mom,” Loving insists. She calls that phone call she received from her son, with news that he had enlisted, “the worst phone news she ever had to hear in her life.” But, as recommended by other military moms, she attended his boot camp graduation in Fort Benning, Ga.  “I was told to show support, because he had to have his head clear before being deployed.” She adds, “Everything is about the soldier, nothing is about the soldier’s family and helping those people cope.”

“I thought he was going to flop out,” she admits. “He was so undisciplined, so anti-
authority.” Turns out, her son excelled at military life, and Loving insists she’s proud of what her son has accomplished. But knowing her son was a good soldier didn’t quell her anxiety. Since he shipped out to Iraq, Loving has been on medication for high blood pressure and anxiety. “I couldn’t sleep. I waited for the soldiers to come to my door, to tell me my son had been blown to bits. I was on edge, waiting for that visit every day.”

Loving has coped by becoming involved: After meeting the founders of the anti-war
organization Military Families Speak Out, she and her husband, Russell (who is not her son’s father), founded the Sacramento area’s regional chapter. The two have flown to Washington, D.C. to participate in marches, hearings and protests. Some politicians, she insists, are “making millions off the blood of our children.” Through Military Families Speak Out, Loving says she has had access to resources and support that have saved her. She and other military moms regularly e-mail each other with information they have gleaned from the Internet regarding activity in Iraq and their children’s safety.

Like any mother whose child is in danger, says Loving, she’s doing everything she possibly can to get her son out of danger and bring him home safely—and she can’t fathom how anyone, especially a parent, could feel differently. Loving describes military families with loved ones serving in Iraq as falling into two camps: “There are the families who are supporting the administration, who insist we can’t cut and run. I think they do this because it’s the only way they can stand it; that’s what they need to do to support their child.” On the other side, she says, are those who don’t support the war. They either believe in a defensive military but not preemptive strike or they may have supported the war in the beginning but have since decided that the war is being fought for oil and corporate profit. “My son [gets] paid $11 an hour to guard a Halliburton engineer being paid $100 an hour. They have engineers in Iraq. Let them rebuild their own country,” says Loving. “All of us in Military Families Speak Out believe this: Support our troops, bring them home, take care of them once they get here. We refuse to negotiate with our loved ones’ lives.”

She insists part of the frustration she experiences has to do with how abstract this war is for most Americans. “If you don’t have someone over there, someone you’re worrying about, you’re not really thinking about the war,” she says. “And people who say ‘stay the course’—as far as I’m concerned, you can only say that if someone you love is over there. You don’t really have the right to an opinion about this war otherwise.”

While her son trained for duty in Arizona, Loving prayed for the war to end. Now, as he waits for his orders in Alaska, Loving continues to pray—and works to end the war. She says her son, whose brigade headed back to Iraq without him—and whose troops are now dying at twice the rate they were before—suffers from survivor’s guilt. “So do I,” she says. “I feel very guilty that my son is safe. I meet with and talk to moms every day who have lost someone in the war and I don’t even know what to do with that. But you know what they say?

 “They say, ‘We’re just glad your son is safe. We’re happy for you; we’re happy this war hasn’t destroyed your family.’”