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At Home, 4 Wives Also Serve

With husbands at war, they buoy one another and try to reassure their children that all is well.

March 26, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Across a road from Camp Pendleton, in a neighborhood of beige stucco tract homes, Alicia Johnson answers her door. Fear flashes in her eyes as she looks gingerly for someone in uniform who may have come to deliver bad news.

"It happens any time there's a knock at the door when you're not expecting somebody," she said. "It happens even with phone calls. I'll be glad when I don't have to worry about the phone ringing."

There are 74 houses in this government-owned complex, where children play in frontyards around newly planted trees. From most of the homes, a Marine Corps officer has been deployed to the Middle East.

On a cul-de-sac in the shadow of the base that shipped 30,000 Marines to the war, four homes face a park. The Bednars, the Johnsons, the Braggs and the Clarks live there.

The four wives in these homes converse easily in the military jargon of acronyms, but they find it hard to sleep at night. Most of the 20 Americans killed in the war so far have been Marines. There are nine children in the four houses, and the older ones constantly ask when Daddy is coming home.

The women take the children to the park in the afternoons, or for a swim in the Braggs' inflatable pool. They go for walks and watch as one of their 5-year-olds rides her bike without training wheels for the first time. They order pizzas and talk about diapers and the latest bumps and bruises. But not about their husbands.

The families arrived within weeks of each other last summer, the time of year when the Marines shift personnel from base to base and the neighborhood is thick with moving trucks. The war has thrown them together, an impromptu support system that augments their individual tonics for anxiety -- a chocolate supply, television in the wee hours, a journal, the kids. But, ultimately, each wife bears her burden alone.

"I have my rough evenings and my good evenings," said Kandis Bragg, 31. "For my kids' sake, I try to keep a positive outlook."

Capt. Phillip Bragg, 31, was her high school sweetheart. He has been gone two months. Their daughters, Alyssa, 4, and Katie, 2, collect rocks and shells from the beach to give to him when he comes home. They hope to fill an entire garbage can.

Kandis Bragg fills her days with routines that keep her mind off the news. Ballet classes for her girls, workouts for her.

"I keep a stash of Tootsie Rolls in the closet," she said. "I have a few Tootsie Rolls and go to the gym. Then I have a few more Tootsie Rolls. Chocolate makes me happy."

Television, with its wall-to-wall war coverage, has the opposite effect.

"We don't talk about W-A-R, or B-O-M-B-S or G-U-N-S," Bragg said. "When they ask when Daddy is going to be home, I tell them it may be some time, but that when he does, we are going to plan a fabulous vacation."

Still, unwanted information seeps in. At preschool, Alyssa is asked by one of her classmates whether her father, an artillery commander, is safe.

"She picked up that Daddy is fighting the bad guys who are coming to get us and hurt us," Bragg said. "I assured her that Daddy is safe. That Daddy is big and strong and brave.... How do you tell them that bombs are dropping all around Daddy?"

At Johnson's home next door, cable news is rarely shut off. Theirs is a family steeped in the military. Johnson's father, a retired naval officer who works as a civilian for the Defense Department, crawled from the rubble of the Pentagon after terrorists flew a plane into his wing of offices Sept. 11, 2001.

The first word from her 3-year-old son, Daniel, was the Marine salute, "Hoo-ah!" His newest G.I. Joe, a Desert Storm model, came equipped with a tiny Stinger missile. Daniel named the figure Capt. Johnson after his father, Whit, a commanding officer who oversees a mobile missile system. Daniel cries in frustration when he can't get the rocket to stay in Capt. Johnson's plastic hands.

"It goes over his shoulder like this because it's very heavy," his mom said, showing him. "See, this is how Daddy holds it.... Capt. Johnson is locked and loaded."

Whit Johnson, 34, enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school. When Alicia married him, she knew the life she would inherit: constant moving, stretches of loneliness. And now this. Many of her old friends don't understand how she deals with it.

"He so completely loves the Marine Corps. He thrives on it," she said. "I could never ask him to get out. Hell, to him, would be a desk job."

Alicia Johnson, 32, is a Marine Key Volunteer coordinator, someone whom other spouses can turn to for information or comfort. Because of that, she tries to keep her own emotions at bay.

"I'm the one that people call when they're crying and having depression problems," she said. "I have to be there for them. I'm the cheerful cheerleader.... I can't be needy."

She sleeps some, she said, but grinds her teeth so much that it's painful to chew.

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