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Responsibilities Also Increase on the Home Front

September 18, 2002|GEORGE RAMOS and SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To the folks back home, it's the small things that magnify the absence of loved ones serving as Army reservists in Afghanistan. It's the stuff they never thought about when the part-time soldiers were in Southern California.

"My son was mowing the lawn the other day, and a pebble broke the front window," said Ana Hernandez of Hacienda Heights.

Her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Victor Hernandez, normally handles such matters, but he is in Afghanistan. "It's 6 o'clock at night. Where am I going to find someone to put in a window?"

Her husband, a postal worker, has been away from home before, spending nine months in Germany during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and seven months in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1997. This time, Ana Hernandez said, his absence seems more profound, particularly for the couple's five children, ages 10 to 21.

"Before, they were little and didn't quite understand," she said. "Now that they're older, I think it's harder for them. They really look up to him a lot, especially for their homework."

Marissa Reyes of Torrance, whose husband is in his third month of duty in Afghanistan, said the couple's second-grade son repeatedly asks where his father is.

"He's a young kid, and we try to explain things.... But it's still a problem," she said.

There also are financial considerations for some families; military pay is often much less than a regular salary.

The Postal Service discontinued Hernandez's pay while he is overseas, his wife said. And she has been off work as a part-time retail clerk since hurting her back a week after he left. The family is living on her husband's military pay and a small disability check she receives. That amounts to half their pre-deployment income.

She has invoked a federal law allowing deferment of some bills for families of military personnel stationed overseas. "We did have some money saved up, and that's been what we've been using," she said.

It doesn't take long for families to tire of the separation.

"In the first month ... I felt kind of lost and depressed," said Pam Hicklin, whose husband, Tom, is nearing the end of a 90-day deployment in Afghanistan. "And then I got to the point where I was feeling all right and handling things, and then felt like a lot of responsibility that we used to share had suddenly been tossed upon me."

Now she's preparing for the separation to end, which comes with its own stresses.

Her husband was also called up for service in Operation Desert Storm and in Bosnia. She remembers meeting him in Germany near the end of his Bosnia assignment and experiencing a sense of strangeness when she saw him.

"Everything was new," she said. "He picked me up from the airport, and it was awkward and strange with him. It felt like this was my husband, but not."

This time, she's determined to bridge the distance, which seems vast despite daily e-mail contact. "I told him that, when he comes back, we're going to make a pact not to get angry with each other for the first two weeks," she said.

Tom Hicklin, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC's Keck School of Medicine, heads a unit in Afghanistan that works with soldiers enduring the strains of battle, separation and the transition home.

The irony is not lost on his wife. "Who's here to help me in dealing with it?" she said from the couple's home in Pasadena, which they share with their 20-year-old son.

Still, many families aren't questioning their loved ones' decisions to be part-time soldiers.

The 10 siblings of 23-year-old Sgt. Ricardo Ramirez of La Puente are content with his being overseas, especially because he is working to become a U.S. citizen. But they recognize the dangers of his presence in a place as volatile as Afghanistan. Ramirez's brother and sisters haven't told their mother, who doesn't speak or read English, where he is stationed.

"We were going to tell her last week," acknowledged his sister, Isabel Alcaraz. "But we haven't. We told her he is in Egypt. Eventually, we will tell her."

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