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Family Copes With Separation

Military: Parents find new strength after world events remove father from the household.

April 14, 2002|JACK SULLIVAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — It was the middle of his overnight shift when Staff Sgt. Robert Warner came home, woke his wife and told her the Air Force was sending him to the Persian Gulf. In an hour.

April Warner remembers every minute of the next 60: Her husband paced their government-issue house, more nervous than she had ever seen. They double-checked the deployment bag he had packed 11 days before, on Sept. 11.

They went over the bills Robert had always handled and signed papers giving April power over their affairs. They decided not to wake their four children. And then they said goodbye.

"He kept saying, 'I love you, I love you,' " April recalls. "And I kept thinking, 'Is this the last time I'm going to hear him say that?' "

And then he was gone--joining the first wave of airmen sent from Grand Forks to "Base X," the secret desert outpost 7,000 miles away that's home for KC-135 Stratotankers to fly air-refueling missions in support of the Afghan war.

Back home, for the first time in her 11-year marriage--and her adult life--April was suddenly alone.

The next morning, she tried to explain to the kids.

"Did Daddy die?" 2-year-old Brittney asked.

April started crying.

"Daddy will be home, don't you worry," she said. "Daddy will be home sooner than you think."

But at 29, with four children and far from her extended family, she was afraid at first that she wouldn't make it on her own. The Warners had only lived in North Dakota a few months, after previous Air Force postings in England and Oklahoma.

The weekend ground away. April prayed at Mass on Sunday at the base's Sunflower Chapel. She went to the base family support center Monday.

"Please help me," she said. "I don't know what to do. My husband left, and it's our first winter here, and I don't even own a snow shovel."

Base Location Secret

Robert Warner's first shift stretched for 40 hours as crews rushed to reopen Base X.

Contained within a larger military installation of its host country, Base X had been used occasionally by Americans in the 1990s. The Air Force keeps the base's location secret for security reasons and because its host nation wants to limit knowledge of the help it is giving the United States.

Gray-green scrub dots the vacant desert between the base's runways and "Tent City," where the Americans live. Concrete barriers and concertina wire ring the compound, and sandbagged guard posts rise above its fence. Gravel streets line row after row of tan tents. Dust as fine as baby powder quickly covers vehicles.

The first crews found little more than half a dozen empty buildings on the rocky ground. Workers used two-foot-long bits to drill holes in the rock for support poles for 253 tents. The civil engineers who plotted the streets named them after the streets of New York--Park Avenue runs down the center of the camp, and Wall Street passes before the finance tent.

Standing near the center of Tent City is a mileage post marking the distance to several cities and landmarks, including the World Trade Center.

Eventually, some amenities came: a barber, tailor, sand volleyball court and outdoor movie screen.

The fuel building where Robert Warner was assigned looks out over a taxiway, runway and desert. From midnight to noon, six days a week, he drove one of 15 fuel trucks that pumped a quarter-million gallons per day into 10 KC-135s.

He and his co-workers strung 120 water-bottle caps on a cord hung below camouflage netting outside the building. Counting their duty as with an abacus, they slid a cap from one side to the other every day, another mark toward the trip home.

But when it became obvious that four months would pass and they would still be in the desert, they took the cord down.

Financial Advice

April Warner returned from the family service center with an armful of brochures, information most families receive to prepare well before someone deploys. Postcards for her kids to send Robert. Advice on finances. How to shoulder stress.

Robert took care of the checkbook and many household decisions. "I just had to step up to the plate and do it all," April said.

Robert was the disciplinarian, a role she had a hard time filling. "My kids would laugh at me and say, 'You're joking, Mom. Daddy's the one who sends us to our room, not you,' " she said.

Time passed. She remembers an afternoon nap--made possible by a base "Give parents a break" event where she had delivered her four children--as if it were a vacation.

The children had their own struggles. Ashleigh, 10, and Tommy, 9, slept in Robert's T-shirts every night. "They smell just like Dad," they said.

Ashleigh took five of her father's fishing trophies into her room and put them on her dresser.

Things changed slowly. April grew as a default single parent, managing her house and her children alone. She made a point of rewarding Tommy's first entry in a Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby because he built his third-place wooden racer himself.

After a while, she contemplated the changes in her life.

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