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Fort Bragg families struggle with risks of war

From Kathy Slobogin

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (CNN) -- The U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne, nicknamed the famous All-Americans, is known for the ability to be anywhere in the world within 18 hours. While the soldiers have to be ready for rapid deployment, their relatives have to be ready for something else.

For the families, trouble someplace on the globe could mean a phone call. The call means that within 15 minutes to an hour, a parent might be deployed. They don't know where or for how long.

"I could receive a phone call at the office, and it could be someone from his unit telling me that he's gone," said Trish, whose husband is stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

"We will have been married 18 years next month, and I think he has actually managed to be home on our anniversary date four times."

For security reasons, the last names of students or parents with relatives serving at the military base were not provided.

Dianne is another spouse of a longtime soldier.

"There have been times that all you get is that phone call. You don't have a chance to really say goodbye," she said.

"My youngest child is 9 years old. My oldest one just turned 12," Dianne said. "And out of my youngest one's 9 years, my husband has been home probably two years of her life, if that."

While the troops prepare to leave home for war, the remainder of the community draws more tightly together. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Irwin Middle School Principal Bob Kirkpatrick has had to go through three different security checks every day to enter the school.

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Each night the school is swept for bombs. Mail is carefully screened. But the schools on the base remain a strong center for families that often experience separation.

"I think during those times the relationships they have with folks that are here become even more important to them, and they seem to grip on more tightly," Kirkpatrick said. "Teachers can be that anchor, and I think our teachers feel that sense of responsibility."

Children at Irwin have had to learn to live without seeing a parent for long periods, up to three years. Teachers here realize such absences can be a strain on the students.

"You have to teach with your heart sometimes," said fifth-grade teacher Valerie Krum. "You have to all of a sudden realize that the curriculum that you're teaching -- adjectives or adverbs -- just isn't as important to them as you think it is at that time for their education."

Sometimes, a parent who serves overseas does not return.

"Last year I had a parent, I still get emotional about it," Krum said. "The parent wasn't necessarily deployed, but he was on a mission ... and he did not come back."

Many of the children have fears something like that might happen to them.

"In the back of their minds, that's always there" Krum said.

Genesis, a sixth-grader whose father has been away most of the last nine years, became anxious after the September attacks.

"My older daughter has always been an honor roll, straight-A student," Dianne said. "Within the first few days, we noticed a change in her. Her grades started plummeting. She brought home her first few D's.

"There's always that fear, that Daddy may have to walk out the door. And I think that was bothering her. She knew that at any moment Daddy could get that phone call, and she didn't know when."

The school pays special attention to children whose fears and emotions are overwhelming them. Sixth-graders are going through special counseling to help them cope.

One teacher has what she calls a "peace circle" each week where students can talk about anything that's bothering them. The teacher said being able to express fears can help sometimes.

"I hope my dad gets to be OK because he's gotten off easy in different wars. But this one's a little different," said one student Chris, who breaks up and starts to cry.

"We're all thinking about him, and we know he's OK. You've heard from him right?" asked a teacher, Diane Davis.

"Three times," said Chris, struggling to keep his emotions in check.

"We'll keep him in our hearts and our thoughts. We're all here to support Christopher, aren't we?" Davis said.

"He's been gone for a month. He was on the first flight out," said Chris, crying.

Fort Bragg parents said it helps to tell their children that the soldier's job is important, making things safe for the rest of the nation. But it's not easy to reassure a child when parents are afraid themselves of the knock on the door with bad news.

"You have that fear. You don't let the fear take over your life, but that fear is always there," Dianne said.


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